Thoughts on crystals, symmetry, and perfection

Bismuth crystals on my desk

Nothing too unusual here. Just some bismuth crystals sitting on my desk. A metallurgist friend died recently and his family passed along some of his samples to me. Virg was a great guy. He knew how to conduct himself with decorum like a civilized human being. I don’t confer this praise on everyone.

Bismuth City

I think many people find some kind of solace in the orderliness of crystals. Nature has seemingly betrayed the prevalent trend of disorderliness to produce a latticework of pristine stuff in appealing shapes. Crystals appeal to our innate desire for symmetry and rectilinearity. We subconsciously associate symmetry with goodness and calm. Properly stacked goods in your basement suggest orderliness. Shoes lined up in the closet or socks neatly arranged in the drawer provide a reassurance that something in life is at least predictable.

Crystallinity infers a repetitive array of subunits asssembled under the austere constraints of efficient stacking. It represents subunits held in confinement and subject to limits on motion.

Crystallinity is in a sense sterile and lacking in diversity. Living things are not crystalline for the most part. Crystallinity is static and devoid of the many necessary degrees of freedom needed for life.  Living things often have superficial symmetries, though on closer inspection something inevitably cracks the symmetry. Humans have a bilateral symmetry across a line taken from the head to between the feet, as do butterflies and hippos. Internally, though, the symmetry is less than obvious.  Our genetic polymers of DNA have a gross secondary helical symmetry as do some peptides, but even that yields to partial symmetry when the monomeric units are accounted for.  Sure, there are instances of crystallinity in living things. But living things require a fluid internal environment to allow molecules to collide and react.

If you take crystallinity as an allegory of perfection in the sense of a way of being- that is, orderliness and freedom from defects- then you might conclude that a perfect being would be constrained by symmetry or the attributes of perfection.  It would seem that the attribution of perfection in a being might pose the possibility of limitation.

Instead of getting wrapped around the axel philosophically, perhaps we should gladly rejoice in the lack of perfection in ourselves and the ultimate absurdity of perfection in the fanciful dieties whom we imagine control the vibration of every molecule in the fleas that ride on the tailfeathers of every sparrow.

About gaussling

Gaussling is a senior scientist in the chemical business. He occasionally breaks glassware and has been known to generate new forms of hazmats. Gaussling also digs aerospace, geology, and community theatre. View all posts by gaussling

One response to “Thoughts on crystals, symmetry, and perfection

  • gravelinspector

    Geologists appreciate crystallinity too. Unsurprisingly.

    Get thee to a couple of sheets of polaroid and some thin dishes of (IIRC) a saturated solutions of ascorbic acid. Second-order interference colours are pretty. I used to have a tie of second-order colours, but I ruined it with a hot wash long before I had a wife to educate me about such things.

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