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Symmetry is a characteristic of geometrical shapes, equations, and other objects; we say that such an object is symmetric with respect to a given operation if this operation, when applied to the object, does not appear to change it. The three main symmetrical operations are reflection, rotation, and translation. A reflection "flips" an object over a line, inverting it to its mirror image, as if in a mirror.

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Top left quadrant used to create a symmetrical tile
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Symmetry created via reflection into quads 2, 3 and 4
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Symmetry created via reflection and offset

A rotation rotates an object using a point as its center. An equilateral triangle has rotational symmetry with respect to an angle of 120°. Pentamerism is a body symmetry exhibited primarily by starfish; it is rotational symmetry with respect to an angle of 72°.

Rotational symmetry with respect to any angle is, in two dimensions, circular symmetry. In three dimensions we can distinguish cylindrical symmetry and spherical symmetry (no change when rotating about one axis, or for any rotation). That is, no dependence on the angle using cylindrical coordinates and no dependence on either angle using spherical coordinates.

A translation "slides" an object from one area to another by a vector. More complex symmetries may be built by combining these operations. A particularly colorful example can be seen in the regular, repeated patterns of the wallpaper group. Symmetry occurs in geometry, mathematics, physics, biology, art, literature (palindromes), etc.

Although two objects with great similarity appear the same, they must logically be different. For example, if one rotates an equilateral triangle around its center 120 degrees, it will appear the same as it was before the rotation to an observer. In theoretical euclidean geometry, such a rotation would be unrecognizable from its previous form. In reality however, each corner of any equilateral triangle composed of matter must be composed of separate molecules in separate locations. Therefore, symmetry in real physical objects is a matter of similarity instead of sameness. The difficulty for an intelligence to differentiate such a seemingly exact similarity is understandable.


Symmetry in geometry

The object with the most symmetry is empty space because any part of can be rotated, reflected or translated without apparent change.

The most familiar and conventionally taught type of symmetry is the left-right or mirror image symmetry exhibited for instance by the letter T: when this letter is reflected along a vertical axis, it appears the same.

An equilateral triangle exhibits such a reflection symmetry along three axes, and in addition it shows rotational symmetry: if rotated by 120 or 240 degrees, it remains unchanged. An instance of a shape which exhibits only rotational symmetry (with respect to an angle of 90 degrees) but no reflectional symmetry is the swastika.

An example of translational symmetry is:


(get the same by moving one line down and two positions to the right), and of two-fold translational symmetry:

* |* |* |* |
 |* |* |* |*
|* |* |* |*
* |* |* |* |
 |* |* |* |*
|* |* |* |* 

(get the same by moving three positions to the right, or one line down and two positions to the right; consequently get also the same moving three lines down).

In both cases there is neither mirror-image symmetry nor rotational symmetry.

The German geometer Felix Klein enunciated a very influential Erlangen programme in 1872, suggesting symmetry as unifying and organising principle in geometry (at a time when that was read 'geometries'). This is a broad rather than deep principle. Initially it led to interest in the groups attached to geometries, and the slogan transformation geometry (an aspect of the New Math, but hardly controversial in modern mathematical practice). By now it has been applied in numerous forms, as kind of standard attack on problems.

A fractal, as conceived by Mandelbrot, has symmetry involving scaling. For example an equilateral triangle can be shrunk so that each of its sides are one third the length of the original's sides. These smaller triangles can be rotated and translated until they are adjacent and in the center of each of the larger triangle's lines. The smaller triangles can repeat the process, resulting in even smaller triangles on their sides. Fascinating intricate structures can be created by repeating such scaling symmetrical operations many times.

Note: this needs a short paragraph about symmetrical patterns that completely cover a surface; e.g. the wallpaper group and tilings, but also aperiodic but non-the-less symmetric tilings such as the Penrose tiling. Note that the Penrose tiling is a projection of a three dimensional lattice (which has cubic symmetry) down to two dimensions; thus, the readily appearent symmetry in three dimensions is rather hidden and obfuscated when seen in two. And this is, perhaps, an example of the grand lesson of finding symmetry in nature.

Symmetry in mathematics

An example of a mathematical expression exhibiting symmetry is a2c + 3ab + b2c. If a and b are exchanged, the expression remains unchanged due to the commutativity of addition and multiplication.

In mathematics, one studies the symmetry of a given object by collecting all the operations that leave the object unchanged. These operations form a group. For a geometrical object, this is known as its symmetry group; for an algebraic object, one uses the term automorphism group. The whole subject of Galois theory deals with well-hidden symmetries of fields. See also symmetric function.

In fact, prior to the 20th century, groups were synonymous with transformation groups (i.e. group actions). It's only during the early 20th century that the current abstract definition of a group without any reference to group actions was used instead.


Symmetry in logic

A dyadic relation R is symmetric if and only if, whenever it's true that Rab, it's true that Rba. Thus, “is the same age as” is symmetrical, for if Paul is the same age as Mary, then Mary is the same age as Paul.

Generalization of symmetry

If we have a given set of objects with some structure, then it is possible for a symmetry to merely convert only one object into another, instead of acting upon all possible objects simultaneously. This requires a generalization from the concept of symmetry group to that of a groupoid.

Also, physicists have come up with other generalizations like supersymmetry and quantum groups.

Symmetry in physics

The generalisation of symmetry in physics to mean invariance under any kind of transformation has become one of the most powerful tools of theoretical physics. See Noether's theorem(which, as a gross oversimplification, states that for every symmetry law, there is a conservation law) for more details. This has led to group theory being one of the areas of mathematics most studied by physicists; spontaneous symmetry breaking of transformations of symmetric groups appears to explain topics in particle physics (for example, the unification of electromagnetism and the weak force) and cosmology.

Symmetry in biology

See Bilateral symmetry, Pentamerism.

Symmetry in chemistry

See Group Theory, Spectroscopy, Molecular orbital

Symmetry in the arts and crafts

You can find the use of symmetry across a wide variety of arts and crafts.


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Leaning Tower of Pisa

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Symmetry has long been a predominant design element in architecture; prominent examples include the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Monticello, the Astrodome, the Sydney Opera House, Gothic church windows, and the Pantheon. Symmetry is used in the design of the overall floor plan of buildings as well as the design of individual building elements such as doors, windows, floors, frieze work, and ornamentation; many facades adhere to bilateral symmetry.




The ancient Chinese used symmetrical patterns in their bronze castings since the 17th century B.C. Bronze vessels exhibited both a bilateral main motif and a repetitive translated border design. Persian pottery dating from 6000 B.C. used symmetric zigzags, squares, and cross-hatchings.



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As quilts are made from square blocks (usually 9, 16, or 25 pieces to a block) with each smaller piece usually consisting of fabric triangles, the craft lends itself readily to the application of symmetry.


Carpets, rugs

Image:NavajoSerrate.JPG Missing image

A long tradition of the use of symmetry in rug patterns spans a variety of cultures. American Navajo Indians used bold diagonals and rectangular motifs. Many Oriental rugs have intricate reflected centers and borders that translate a pattern. Not surprisingly most rugs use quadrilateral symmetry -- a motif reflected across both the horizontal and vertical axes.




Symmetry has been used as a formal constraint by many composers, such as the arch form (ABCBA) used by Steve Reich, Bla Bartk, and James Tenney (or swell).

Pitch structures

Symmetry is also an important consideration in the formation of scales and chords, traditional or tonal music being made up of non-symmetrical groups of pitches, such as the diatonic scale or the major chord. Symmetrical scales or chords, such as the whole tone scale, augmented chord, or diminished seventh chord (diminished-diminished seventh), are said to lack direction or a sense of forward motion, are ambiguous as to the key or tonal center, and have a less specific diatonic functionality. However, composers such as Alban Berg, Bla Bartk, and George Perle have used axes of symmetry and/or interval cycles in an analogous way to keys or non-tonal tonal centers.

Perle (1992) explains "C-E, D-F#, [and] Eb-G, are different instances of the same interval...the other kind of identity...has to do with axes of symmetry. C-E belongs to a family of symmetrically related dyads as follows:"

D D# E F F# G G#
D C# C B A# A G#

Thus in addition to being part of the interval-4 family, C-E is also a part of the sum-4 family (with C equal to 0).

+ 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
2 1 0 11 10 9 8
4 4 4 4 4 4 4

Interval cycles are symmetrical and thus non-diatonic. However, a seven pitch segment of C5 (the cycle of fifths, which are enharmonic with the cycle of fourths) will produce the diatonic major scale. Cyclic tonal progressions in the works of Romantic composers such as Gustav Mahler and Richard Wagner form a link with the cyclic pitch successions in the atonal music of Modernists such as Bartk, Alexander Scriabin, Edgard Varese, and the Vienna school. At the same time, these progressions signal the end of tonality.

The first extended composition consistently based on symmetrical pitch relations was probably Alban Berg's Quartet, Op. 3 (1910). (Perle, 1990)


Tone rows or pitch class sets which are invariant under retrograde are horizontally symmetrical, under inversion vertically. See also Asymmetric rhythm.

Other arts and crafts

Chair      Bracelet      Celtic knotwork

The concept of symmetry is applied to the design of objects of all shapes and sizes -- you can find it in the design of beadwork, furniture, sand paintings, knotwork, masks, and musical instruments (to name just a handful of examples).


Symmetry does not by itself confer beauty to an object -- many symmetrical designs are boring or overly challenging. Along with texture, color, proportion, and other factors, symmetry does however play an important role in determining the aesthetic appeal of an object. See also M. C. Escher, wallpaper group, tiling.

Symmetry in literature

to be written

Symmetry in telecommunications

Some telecommunications services (specifically data products) may be referred to as symmetrical or asymmetrical. This refers to the bandwidth allocated for data sent and received. Most internet services used by residential customers are asymmetrical: the data sent to the server normally is far less than that returned by the server.

Moral symmetry

Related topics

External links


  • Perle, George (1990). The Listening Composer, p. 112. California: University of California Press. ISBN 0520069919.
  • Perle, George (1992). Symmetry, the Twelve-Tone Scale, and Tonality. Contemporary Music Review 6 (2), pp. 81-96de:Symmetrie

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