Book cover: The Language of Symmetry

The language of symmetry

Astronomy and astrophysics
Fundamental particles and interactions
Plasma physics
Particle Physics
Rudolf Peierls Centre for Theoretical Physics

Three physicists from Oxford have contributed to a new book, The Language of Symmetry, out today, 16 May 2023.

Professors Caroline Terquem, Dimitra Rigopoulou and Alan Barr have all written a chapter for the book, a discussion of the structure and reach of symmetry by an interdisciplinary group of specialists from the arts, humanities and sciences at the University of Oxford.

Professor Terquem’s chapter, ‘Planetary systems: from symmetry to chaos’ describes how highly structured planetary systems are, and how that relates to the 'symmetry' of the universe that Copernicus perceived in the arrangement of the orbs. She also explains how the commensurabilities of some orbits, as seen in many planetary systems, and which evoke symmetry and order, often lead to chaos, where order is interwoven with randomness.

‘Entropy and symmetry in the Universe’ has been written by Professor Rigopoulou and explores how these two seemingly ‘inconsistent’ concepts have shaped the world we live in. Entropy is a measure of the 'disorder' in a physical system and without it the Universe would have been very different to what we see today. Yet, despite this state of ever-increasing disorder, our everyday life is also full of harmonious symmetries. Did our Universe move from order to disorder in order for galaxies, planets and life to exist?

Professor Barr wrote a chapter entitled ‘Darkness, light and how symmetry might relate them’. In it, he considers the interactions of light with matter, interactions which inform us about the material world and give insight into distant parts of the universe. He describes how some types of matter, such as neutrinos, which do not interact with light, but which nevertheless we have managed to 'see'. And he describes how dark matter, the mysterious invisible material which dominates the matter in the universe, while itself dark might be related by a mathematical symmetry to photons of light.

The book’s aim is to open up an interdisciplinary discourse in the study of symmetry. Earlier this year, the trio were part of a ten-strong panel to present their work on the topic at a symposium held at the British Museum. Ten Oxford professors from disciplines ranging from music through philosophy, physiology, logic and physics and astronomy, explored the idea of symmetry and how it is expressed in different ways in the different fields.