Symmetry in everyday language refers to a sense of harmonious and beautiful proportion and balance. In mathematics, "symmetry" has a more precise definition, and is usually used to refer to an object that is invariant under some transformations; including translation, reflection, rotation or scaling. Although these two meanings of "symmetry" can sometimes be told apart, they are intricately related, and hence are discussed together in this article.
This article describes symmetry from three perspectives: in mathematics, including geometry, the most familiar type of symmetry for many people; in science and nature; and in the arts, covering architecture, art and music.
Generalizing from geometrical symmetry in the previous section, one can say that a mathematical object is symmetric with respect to a given mathematical operation, if, when applied to the object, this operation preserves some property of the object. The set of operations that preserve a given property of the object form a group.
In biology, the notion of symmetry is mostly used explicitly to describe body shapes. Bilateral animals, including humans, are more or less symmetric with respect to the sagittal plane which divides the body into left and right halves. Animals that move in one direction necessarily have upper and lower sides, head and tail ends, and therefore a left and a right. The head becomes specialized with a mouth and sense organs, and the body becomes bilaterally symmetric for the purpose of movement, with symmetrical pairs of muscles and skeletal elements, though internal organs often remain asymmetric.
In biology, the notion of symmetry is also used as in physics, that is to say to describe the properties of the objects studied, including their interactions. A remarkable property of biological evolution is the changes of symmetry corresponding to the appearance of new parts and dynamics.
Symmetry is important to chemistry because it undergirds essentially all specific interactions between molecules in nature (i.e., via the interaction of natural and human-made chiral molecules with inherently chiral biological systems). The control of the symmetry of molecules produced in modern chemical synthesis contributes to the ability of scientists to offer therapeutic interventions with minimal side effects. A rigorous understanding of symmetry explains fundamental observations in quantum chemistry, and in the applied areas of spectroscopy and crystallography. The theory and application of symmetry to these areas of physical science draws heavily on the mathematical area of group theory.
More recent neuroimaging studies have documented which brain regions are active during perception of symmetry. Sasaki et al. used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare responses for patterns with symmetrical or random dots. A strong activity was present in extrastriate regions of the occipital cortex but not in the primary visual cortex. The extrastriate regions included V3A, V4, V7, and the lateral occipital complex (LOC). Electrophysiological studies have found a late posterior negativity that originates from the same areas. In general, a large part of the visual system seems to be involved in processing visual symmetry, and these areas involve similar networks to those responsible for detecting and recognising objects.
Symmetry finds its ways into architecture at every scale, from the overall external views of buildings such as Gothic cathedrals and The White House, through the layout of the individual floor plans, and down to the design of individual building elements such as tile mosaics. Islamic buildings such as the Taj Mahal and the Lotfollah mosque make elaborate use of symmetry both in their structure and in their ornamentation. Moorish buildings like the Alhambra are ornamented with complex patterns made using translational and reflection symmetries as well as rotations.