The Myth of Symmetry: Yang and Lee



Lewis Carroll was right, even if he didn’t know why. In fact, looking-glass milk is poisonous. The importance of parity (symmetry) violations is best understood against a backdrop of a venerable idea in physics. One of the most cherished visions in nature has always been that of a universe that is stable, orderly, and predictable. Briefly, the underlying idea of symmetry is merely that—the universe does and always will display a high degree of symmetry. The beautiful symmetry of a snowflake is one example, as is the “radial” symmetry of a starfish and the elegantly beautiful symmetry of the double-helical DNA molecule. Yet the world had to await the great physicists C. N. Yang and T.-D. Lee for physical proof of Carroll’s ideas. As Yang himself described symmetry,

One of the symmetry principles—the symmetry between the left and the right—is as old as human civilization. The question [of] whether nature exhibits such symmetry was debated at length by philosophers in the past. Of course, in daily life, left and right are quite distinct from each other. Our hearts, for example, are always on our left sides. Thus, a molecule that twists to the left should work the same way as one that twists to the right...1


Nobel Prize Beta Decay Parity Violation Meson Decay Italian Physicist 
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  1. 1.
    Henry A. Boorse and Lloyd Motz, The World of the Atom, Vol. II (Basic Books, New York, 1966), p. 1722.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    For a discussion of symmetry in molecular biology, see Anthony Serafini, Linus Pauling: A Man and His Science (Paragon House, New York, 1989), Chapter 6.Google Scholar

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© Anthony Serafini 1993

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