The Ambidextrous Universe

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The Ambidextrous Universe
Martin Gardner - The New Ambidextrous Universe.jpeg
Author Martin Gardner
Illustrator John Mackey
Cover artist Germano Facetti
Country United States
Language English
Subject Scientific, Mathematics
Genre Non-Fiction
Publisher Penguin Books
Publication date
Media type Print (Paperback)
Pages 276 pp
ISBN 978-0-486-44244-0
OCLC 57373717
539.7/2 22
LC Class QC793.3.S9 G37 2005

The Ambidextrous Universe is a popular science book by Martin Gardner covering aspects of symmetry and asymmetry in human culture, science and the wider universe.

Originally published in 1964, it underwent revisions in 1969, 1979, 1990 and 2005 (the last two are known as the "Third, revised edition"). Originally titled The Ambidextrous Universe: Mirror Asymmetry and Time-Reversed Worlds, subsequent editions are known as The New Ambidextrous Universe: Symmetry and Asymmetry from Mirror Reflections to Superstrings.


The book begins with the subject of mirrors, and from there passes through symmetry in poetry, shapes, art, music, galaxies, suns, planets and wildlife. It then moves into molecular scale physics and how symmetry and asymmetry have evolved from the beginning of life on Earth. There is a chapter on carbon and its versatility, and the last eight chapters concern a problem called the Ozma Problem.

The Ozma Problem[edit]

The 18th chapter, "The Ozma Problem", poses a problem that Gardner claims would arise if Earth should ever enter into communication with life on another planet through Project Ozma. This is the problem of how to communicate the meaning of left and right, where the two communicants are conditionally not allowed to view any one object in common. The problem was first implied in Immanuel Kant's discussion of left and right, and William James mentioned it in his chapter on "The Perception of Space" in The Principles of Psychology (1890). It is also mentioned by Charles Howard Hinton.

The solution to the Ozma Problem is embodied in an experiment conducted by Chien-Shiung Wu involving the beta decay of cobalt-60. This experiment was the first to disprove the conservation of parity. However, Gardner added in the last chapter of his book that the Ozma Problem is only solved within our galaxy: due to the nature of antimatter, an antigalaxy would get the opposite result from the experiment conducted by Wu.

Vladimir Nabokov[edit]

Pale Fire[edit]

In the original 1964 edition of The Ambidextrous Universe, Gardner quoted two lines of poetry from Vladimir Nabokov's 1962 novel Pale Fire which are supposed to have been written by a poet, "John Shade", who is actually fictional. As a joke, Gardner credited the lines only to Shade and put Shade's name in the index as if he were a real person. In his 1969 novel Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Nabokov returned the favor by having the character Van Veen "quote" the Gardner book along with the two lines of verse:

"Space is a swarming in the eyes, and Time a singing in the ears," says John Shade, a modern poet, as quoted by an invented philosopher ("Martin Gardiner" [sic]) in The Ambidextrous Universe, page 165 [sic].[1]

Nabokov misspells Gardner's name and gives the wrong page number (it's actually 168), both of which may have been intentional.

Look at the Harlequins![edit]

Nabokov's 1974 novel Look at the Harlequins!, about a man who can't distinguish left from right, was heavily influenced by his reading of The Ambidextrous Universe.[2][3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Nabokov, Vladimir (1969), Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, McGraw-Hill Book Company, pg 577.
  2. ^ Johnson, D. Barton (1984), "The Ambidextrous Universe of Nabakov's Look at the Harlequins!"; In: Roth, Phyllis (ed.), Critical Essays on Vladimir Nabokov; G.K. Hall.
  3. ^ Hayles, N. Katherine (1984), "Ambivalence: Symmetry, Asymmetry, and the Physics of Time Reversal in Nabokov's Ada", in the same author's The Cosmic Web: Scientific Field Models and Literary Strategies in the Twentieth Century, Cornell University Press.