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Spontaneous breaking of symmetry and its moral meaning

Spontaneous, slightly broken symmetries suggests the beginning of life, and its evolution. It also means that absolute determinism is slightly broken, a basic condition for evolution.

“Symmetry today” was published in France in 1989: A survey by 12 French scientists ¹ who had arrived at the conclusion that: It is in tiny breaks in symmetry that life seems to be engulfed! Meanwhile, other researchers concluded that the homochirality ² generated by a break in symmetry ³ was probably the origin of life and the evolution thereof.

The break involves a division of one field into two separate fields. Contrary to what one might think, this break is not a system fault, but rather the engine of evolution! This break in symmetry has been observed many times at the CERN particle collider, in Geneva. Louis Pasteur had already observed this phenomenon in the tartaric acid of yellow wine from his village in Arbois, in Jura, around 1870. He called this rupture of symmetry “chirality”.

The spontaneous rupture of symmetry was an important discovery; it was honoured in 2008 by the awarding of the Nobel Prize in physics to three US-Japanese researchers: MM. Nambu, Kobayashi, and Maskwa for their work on the origin and the mechanism behind the spontaneous breaks.

This small difference between symmetry and the rupture of symmetry may seem trivial unless we take into account chaos theory. The air around the globe is so unstable that the beating wings of a butterfly, somewhere in Asia, could (theoretically) cause a storm where we live! The image is a caricature, but it illustrates how small changes can have big effects!

During a sleepless night I dreamed that St. Augustine has perhaps perceived the rupture of symmetry long before scientists. His referential system, that of the fifth century, equated symmetry with its symbols of purity, perfection, eternity etc. Breaking such symmetry, in his views, resulted in evil or the “original sin”, the beginning of death. Conversely, scientists today see the beginning of life i.e. what is good in such breaks in symmetry! ³ If this is correct it should suggest us to revise our referential system.

The symmetries equate to the laws of conservation. But physics has also ceased to believe that “everything is preserved”, hence the numerous “breaks in symmetry”. Here a few examples of such spontaneous breaks:

  • The Big Bang
  • A transition phase
  • Cellular division, etc.

There are countless other examples as well. Globalization and the collapse of financial markets in 2008 are probably due to breaks in symmetry.

The rupture of symmetry over time traces the evolution of matter and of the universe itself. In fact, this also represents a realization about our everyday lives. Armed with this, we are on the verge of a new era or paradigm. Instead of an abstract, dull, determined, and non-evolutionary world we enter the real world, which is alive and evolving. This represents a world without purpose, indeterminate, or in which determinism is still very present but is neither absolute nor perfect.


Determinism is incompatible with free will and moral responsibility: it rests on perfect symmetries. Historically it was a kind of uncompromising belief that has finally been defeated by the quantum revolution. Werner Heisenberg and his “uncertainty principle” (or principle of indetermination) drove the first nail in the coffin of perfect determinism. Whilst Albert Einstein still maintained a highly deterministic vision of the universe, his interpretation of quantum mechanics was finally caught out when the physicist John Bell wrote the famous equations called “Bell inequalities”. Arguably, J. Bell rang the death knell of perfect determinism and Alain Aspect became its gravedigger when, in 1982, he experimentally demonstrated the validity of Bell’s inequalities. Now we know that the world is changing in an indeterminate way, without apparent purpose even though many local systems evolve following an apparent determinism.

The transition from the abstract paradigm of symmetry to the very real notion of the rupture of symmetry has been done very gradually. Artists, musicians, painters, etc. were the first to break with the past. Gone are the days of the galleries of the frozen portraits of Prado or elsewhere; Rembrandt introduced a dynamic and liveliness in “the Night Watch”. The impressionists charmed us with new forms and colours. The painters of the Secession in Vienna were emancipated. During the same period, there were still “classics”, such as F. Hodler who remained faithful to the notion of symmetry. In his masterpiece “Guernica”, Picasso used the asymmetry of jagged bodies to express terror, violence, and suffering.

Physicists then made a leap forward with the quantum revolution. The verifications made have required sophisticated engineering and plenty of time, but now this is become their point of reference for more than forty years. The latecomers are the human sciences, particularly economics and ethics, which have yet to “moult”. The neoliberal economy and its “theory of market efficiency (and perfection)” revealed its lack of realism after the collapse of markets in 2008.

With this knowledge accumulated up to the late 20th Century, we can now consider building a new ethical system.



1. Co-Authors: A. Brack, G. Cohen-Tannoudji, Y. Coppens, Y. Guiard, C. Houzel, J-Jacques, G. Lascaut, J.-M. Lévy-Leblond, B. Maitte, J.-C. Risset, Sc. de Schonen, J.-M. Souriau interviewed by E. Noël, during radio broadcasts (Back)

2. The amino acids necessary for life have a leftward orientation, whereas the sugars of DNA are oriented to the right. This is referred to as the homochirality of life. These two terms are inseparable: scientists agree that homochirality is a fundamental signature of life and a necessary condition for its development. Without this “homochirality of life” (or biomolecular asymmetry), life could not exist.(Back)

3. In ancient Hebrew, “good” was referred to as an “edible mushroom” and “bad” as a “poisonous mushroom”. The notion of “good” is intimately linked with the concept of life, at least in the Judeo-Christian tradition. (Back)