As I mentioned in the preceding blog, my earnest effort to write a comprehensive set of essays on Symmetry had turned into an interesting discussion about the connection (or disconnection) between symmetry and life. In the event, it all depended on one's perspective and perception -- in other words, it was just a question of science vs. semantics!
(in same order as in text)
Semantic -- Concerning meaning in language and logic. (Semantics -- Related branch of linguistics).
Balasubramanian -- Pronounced Baala-Subra-Manyan ('u' as in 'put').
Hyderabad -- A State capital in South India.
P.M. Bhargava -- Internationally known Indian scientist, dynamic pioneer in the field of cellular and molecular biology in India.
Sunday Magazine23 February 1992
Of symmetry and life
The merits of a scientific paper and the distinction of its author are often measured in terms of the number of times they are cited by other scientists in their own papers published in reputable scientific journals. This is called the 'Citation Index'.
All scientists would naturally be glad to see their papers appearing in important scientific journals, but usually they are even more pleased to see their findings or views figuring in the contributions of other distinguished scientists. It makes no difference normally whether there is agreement or controversy ; the mere fact that one's scientific output has made an impact on the mind of a peer is usually a sufficient reward for one's intellectual labors.
I am not a scientist, and even my general knowledge is not superior to that of the average layman. Therefore I was not only surprised but was quite thrilled to see that something I had written recently was taken rather seriously by an eminent scientist, who even offered a forceful rejoinder.
I am, of course, referring to the article 'Lack of symmetry and life', written by Prof. D. Balasubramanian of the Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, in The Hindu Science Supplement (Dec. 25). This was in response to my Articulations on symmetry (Nov. 17 and Dec. 1).
Prof. Balasubramanian and I are old friends But in our past interaction he had encountered an official purser and not a self-styled thinker, for I used to be the financial adviser of CSIR (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research) when he was a deputy director of CCMB, with which he is now associated as an independent scientist. The laboratory was in the process of being set up as a constituent unit of CSIR at that time, and vast resources had to be found for the project.
Even before the required infrastructure had fully materialized, the institution existed in the buildings of the Regional Research Laboratory, Hyderabad (now known as the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology), and was already engaged in significant basic research which was attracting world-wide attention.
Quite frankly, I was dazzled by the brilliance and breath-taking vision of the senior scientists who were shaping this center of excellence under the dynamic leadership of Dr. P.M. Bhargava. I never questioned their credentials or even tried to hide my admiration for their adventure ; but I used to grill them hard all the same, so that I would be able to present their demands knowledgeably and effectively to the Planning Commission and the Finance Ministry. Their response was always positive : they took special pains to make a layman like me understand the intricacies of their mission and its far-reaching implications.
In other words, together we sought to create a symmetry between the scientific objectives and the financial constraints. CCMB as it has finally taken shape provides the evidence that we did achieve a large measure of success in our efforts to reconcile these conflicting factors.
Every institution is like a living organism : its proper growth and good health depend on the existence of a satisfactory balance between the different elements which come together to constitute it. In every human endeavor there is an inherent conflict between aspirations and limitations. Accomplishment depends, among other things, on an effective equilibrium. Within a physical and visual frame of reference, symmetry is concerned with shapes, either identical, proportionate or reflective ; but on a conceptual plane, equilibrium and symmetry would be synonymous even if the different elements which contribute to the equilibrium are disparate or asymmetrical in shape or character.
Now let us consider Prof.Balasubramanian's argument. Reacting to my statement that "symmetry exists in nature, science, art and other concerns of civilized life", he observes that "nature does not necessarily prefer symmetry or order." He explains the concept of 'entropy' (which represents the imperfect conversion of thermal energy into mechanical work, and also concerns the disorganization of the universe), and says that "some of the most important facets of nature and natural laws seem to underscore this lack of order or symmetry." As regards sub-atomic particles, he points out that the traditional view that their behavior has a built-in symmetry has now been questioned by some leading scientists.
Turning to cellular and molecular biology, which is his area of specialization, he observes as follows : "Molecules can be right-handed or left-handed in shape. Generally the two forms occur in equal amounts . . . The distinct signature of life is the presence of asymmetrical molecules which go to make it . . . All living systems on earth contain polymeric DNA as the master molecule which controls hereditary and metabolic events in the cells . . ."
Prof. Balasubramanian goes on to say that there can be no life unless there is "preferential enrichment of asymmetrical molecules." From these observed facts, he draws the startling conclusion that "where there is symmetry, there is no active pulsating life."
Symmetry in disparity
I am not competent to question any of the observations which precede the above conclusion ; but having regard to the definition of symmetry -- which is a matter of language and not of science -- I do feel that such a conclusion does not logically follow from the facts cited. This will be evident if we scrutinize the nature of the nexus between synchronization and symmetry.
It is obvious that symmetry is inherent in sychronization. The uniform adoption of the units of time on a global scale provides an outstanding example of this. The simpler form of synchhronization is that which is achieved between similar elements. A flock of birds in leisurely flight, a formation of jet aircraft swishing across the sky, and the stately view of marching soldiers and martial bands illustrate this.
In many contexts, however, synchronization is achieved between disparate things. The actual time at no two longitudes can be the same, but within any given country a national standard time is adopted to avoid confusion. The traffic of vehicles in the modern world is fraught with the risk of confusion and chaos, for the types of vehicles as well as the potential velocity of similar ones are widely divergent. However, there is remarkable order in the way the fabric of traffic is woven on the roads, railways, ocean routes and airways of the world ; a collision occurs when a thread snaps. The parts of a sophisticated engine are of many different kinds, but they are all in harmony with one another and the whole engine.
Harmony and balance
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, 'symmetry' means, among other things, the following : (a) harmony of parts with each other and the whole, and (b) the condition or quality of being well-balanced. In the light of this authentic definition, the second set of illustrations given above implies that proper synchronization reconciles disparate or even clashing elements to achieve symmetry in terms of one of its widest connotations.
Now, what is life if not a marvelous example of synchronization? Is there any mechanism fabricated by man which is more intricate than the advanced forms of life? In the context of physiology, the OED further defines symmetry as 'harmonious working of the bodily functions" -- could that not also be a definition of life itself?
It is not my intention to suggest that everything in the universe and in our world is in perfect order. My exercise has only been concerned with observing how far symmetry does exist in nature and in our lives. Even when we forcefully outline a picture of harmony as it exists, we cannot avoid being acutely aware of the contradictions which also exist.
We had noted in an earlier essay that the symmetry in science is only a reflection of the symmetry in nature ; but scientific and technological progress itself tends in a way to undermine the essential symmemtry of nature -- for it is increasingly polluting the environment with impure and ecologically damaging substances, and altering the character of living organisms through cosmetic or genetic interference. No integral observation of the reality can legitimately ignore this obvious paradox.
A question of credentials
I had mentioned in this article that I never questioned the credentials of the senior scientists in CCMB. That was quite true after I came to know them well ; but in my initial encounter with Dr. P.M. Bhargava, I did ask him to show me his credentials for demanding exceptionally massive funding and very special dispensations. He flew into a rage instantly, and refused to answer my question at first ; but on cooler reflection, he did give me a clear insight into his track record and future potential, with convincing evidence -- which laid the foundation for an extremely productive rapport between us, making us close partners in an exciting and successful project of institution-building. But that, as they say, is another story!