Symmetry: Culture and Science
Volume 29, Number 2, pages 243-244 (2018)

Symmetry Festival 2016, Vienna

Peter Weibel

Director, ZKM, Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is an enormous privilege and pleasure to be with you and to welcome you, even if only virtually. I feel deeply honored and accept with great gratitude the position of a patron of the world's largest multi-disciplinary conference and art festival in symmetry studies, 2016 in Vienna. I wish, I could be with you physically and to listen to all the outstanding excellent lectures by world-renowned keynote speakers and plenary speakers, who will inform us about their ground-breaking innovative ideas and lead us to the frontiers of their research fields in the true tradition of enlightenment – that is science unites people and minds. Science will unite us in the following days and the principle that unites science and disciplines is symmetry.

In art and architecture symmetry was and still is one of the most striking productive fundamental essential principles, from the Spanish architect Juan de Herrera of the 16th century, who wrote the book Su Discurso sobre la figura cúbica (About the cubic form) and who built the Palace El Escorial (1563) in Madrid for King Philipp II, to Victor Vasarely, the central figure of Op Art in the 20th century. We realize the dominance of symmetry about 400 to 500 years. But symmetry is more than the beauty of proportion. Symmetry and asymmetry have become basic principles in the natural sciences. Symmetry has become a universal principle from anthropology to cosmology. Symmetry is an epistemological tool. Symmetry is not only an ontological mirror reflecting on what there is, symmetry teaches us what we know about what there is and therefore symmetry is an epistemological tool. As a universal principle it can serve us on the road to knowledge and wisdom, in chemistry and physics and anthropology and geometry and music and even in psychiatry. The Chilean psychoanalyst Ignacio Matte Blanco, who died in 1995 explored the nature of the unconscious in his book of 1975 The Unconsciousness as Infinite Sets with two principles: the principle of generalization and the principle of symmetry. And he said the unconscious can treat the converse of any relation as identical to it; that is, it deals with relationships as symmetrical. For Matte Blanco “unconsciousness” is marked by what you call symmetry, where there is a preference of sameness and an implicit aversion to difference, while the quality of ego-functioning is the registering and bearing of difference, which he called asymmetry.

In physics symmetry, as you know, is defined as the characteristics of a system to remain invariant after transformations. The symmetry of the linear Maxwell equations plays a central role because the invariants of the Maxwell equations after the Lorenz transformations have been one of the starting points for Einstein's theory of relativity. And the observed symmetry breaking made the existence of Higgs particles necessary. Electromagnetic waves have been derived from the linear Maxwell equations. And therefore we ask, what is the future of gravitational waves?

Symmetry principles act in different systems and disciplines. The historian of science, Bruno Latour, developed the project he calls Symmetrical anthropology. From the chemical universe to the physics universe – all is characterized by the morphological principle of symmetry, from Fullerian structure to medical drugs, from the anatomy of man, which is characterized by vertical symmetry, to helical virus structures, and to galaxies and other dynamical systems. From macro- to micro cosmos we encounter the symmetry principle very well formulated by the Spanish-Catalan philosopher Raimundus Lullus in the 13th century. The sentence of Lullus “The world is an image of God, man is an image of the world” is a perfect symmetrical conception. Symmetry studies are therefore not the next revolution, symmetry studies are an ongoing lasting revolution.

You will experience it in the next days, and you will experience it in 2019, when the Symmetry Festival will take place in the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe and therefore I welcome you to the future.

* Symmetry Festival, Vienna, 18–22 July 2016.