2013.02.06 Parting ways with a mirror

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

I've spent some time today staring into the mirror. Anyone familiar with my appearance knows this doesn't happen all that often. After a shave and a quick brushing of the hair, I'm out the door.

Actually, I have shaven in the dark a couple of times just to see what it would be like if I lost my sight. No blood. I brush my hair in semi-darkness most every Wednesday morning before taking the papers to the post office. No reason to turn on the bathroom light for five seconds. Only the postmaster knows how this works out.

But I was looking into the mirror this morning knowing that what I was seeing isn't what other people see. I learned that Friday night while listening to the National Public Radio program called Radiolab.

Radiolab, with Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad, is described as a show about curiosity, "where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy and human experience." Curiosity, indeed, and I'm always impressed by what they come up.

Unfortunately, I must not be impressed all that often because I generally forget to tune in. While setting the radio alarm for my wife Friday night, there it was and they were part way through a show they called "Desperately Seeking Symmetry."

The episode started off with Plato's myth from 2,400 years ago, as told by Aristophanes, about the creation of humans. Of course you remember, as any well educated person does. Well, maybe I wasn't listening that day, or perhaps I was never exposed to that tale.

The story says that way back when, people weren't born separately from each other. They were entwined and coupled, and they rolled around with their multiple arms and legs. The beings developed courage that changed to pride that became arrogance. They decided to challenge the gods until Zeus hurled lightning bolts and split everyone in half.

People had been warm and tight and wedged together, and now they were detached, alone and depressed. The gods were worried they might not survive, so changes were made. The head was made to face forward. The skin was tightened and knotted at the bellybutton. And we were left with a memory of the past and a longing to find the original half of ourselves that made us whole.

People come together to form a couple and sometimes they can't explain the attraction. They just know they've found their other half.

The program goes on to talk about a researcher at Princeton who studied brain scans looking for symmetry to see if a "brain double" turned out to be someone just like herself. She found a person whose scan matched hers to a remarkable degree. It didn't matter one bit. They were nothing alike other than their first name.

Next the show went molecular. Take an inanimate object like a chunk of concrete. Half the molecules point to the right and half to the left. But living things—dogs, trees, you and me—always have molecules that point only to the left.

And then there's the mirror and the mirror image.

Someone named John talked about how he was teased and bullied as a kid, but everything changed when he began parting his hair on the left side rather than the right. He always saw the part on the left when he looked in the mirror and he thought he looked fine. He made the change to the left and thought it looked odd, but the people who used to beat him up suddenly acknowledged him and accepted him.

There's a photo on the Radiolab website showing Abe Lincoln as he appeared to the world and another showing how he saw himself. Hmmm, is this mirror-image stuff all gibberish or is there something to it? A researcher in Australia points out that if you look very closely at a smile, there's a little bit more on the left than on the right, so the image does change in the mirror in more ways than a hair part.

The program ended with talk about the odd proton that allows us to be what we are, and of course they tied all these parts together into one coherent and interesting show.

I tried a right part this morning and then a left part. There's a difference, but they both looked strange because I've been center-parted since way back before Zeus split me in two.

At my age, I'm just lucky to have hair to part.

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