The symmetries of Arcadia

Arcadia is an intensely scientific play. On re-reading it, I’ve realised that one could look at it from the point of view of what physicists call ‘symmetries’.

Science suggests that at very high energies, all the fundamental forces are identical. Different particles are fundamentally identical too. A ‘symmetry’ exists between different particles and different forces. But in the observable universe, the symmetry is broken because other factors come into play. Different forces act differently, and a particle called the Higgs boson interacts with other particles, slowing some of them down more than others, giving them what we perceive as ‘mass’. (This is why some particles are heavier than others.) One of science’s puzzles is how to incorporate gravity, the fourth force, into the theory – it plays a very important role, but acts differently from the others.

We can’t test this, because the unification happens at energy scales much beyond our reach.

In Arcadia, at the higher intellectual levels, there exists a symmetry between science, literature and sex. They work the same way and are equally powerful (more on this here). Septimus explains carnal embrace and Fermat’s last theorem together, expressing equal interest in both. Hannah and Valentine, literary scholar and scientist, make a series of discoveries that lead them successively closer to the theory of the universe. In the end, they both arrive at the doom of the universe independently.

What breaks the symmetry in the everyday universe? Individuality. Personal perception. Social and technological evolution. These construct the world around us; they’re also the tools we use to understand it. The same forces influence the world around us, but they work differently. At each point, some forces are more powerful than others. One force, though extremely powerful in the observable world, doesn’t quite fit into the theory. (Sex dominates in the nineteenth century; science dominates the modern world. No-one is sure how fundamental sex is to intellectual inquiry.)

There is also a symmetry in time. Valentine and Septimus both have tortoises. Valentine and Thomasina explore the same mathematical questions with their different tools. Both Hannah and Lady Croom don’t know when they’ve received a more unusual compliment (though the compliments they respond to are very different.)

As science, literature, history and sex advance closer to the ultimate revalation, they grow more symmetrical. But there is no ultimate revelation that’s practically accessible. Our best hope lies in extrapolating the graphs and studying the unification of forces.


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