The Ambidextrous Universe

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The Ambidextrous Universe
Martin Gardner - The New Ambidextrous Universe.jpeg
The final (paperback) edition,
issued in 2005 by Dover Books
Author Martin Gardner
Illustrator John Mackey
Cover artist Germano Facetti
Country United States
Language English
Subject Symmetry, Scientific, Mathematics
Genre Non-Fiction
Publisher Penguin Books
Publication date
Media type Print (Paperback)
Pages 276 (1st edition)
401 (3rd edition)
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 (1914–2010) 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 mirror reflection, and from there passes through symmetry in geometry, poetry, art, music, galaxies, suns, planets and living organisms. It then moves down into the molecular scale and looks at how symmetry and asymmetry have evolved from the beginning of life on Earth. There is a chapter on carbon and its versatility and on chirality in biochemistry. Chapter 18 (and subsequent chapters) deals with a conundrum called the Ozma Problem (see below). The second half of the book concerns various aspects of atomic and subatomic physics and how they relate to mirror asymmetry and the related concepts of chirality, antimatter, magnetic and electrical polarity, parity, charge and spin. Time invariance (and reversal) is discussed. Implications for particle physics, theoretical physics and cosmology are covered and brought up to date (in later editions of the book) with regard to GUTs, TOEs, superstring theory and M-theory.


The second edition added five chapters to the first edition’s 24. The third edition added five more (26, 27, 32, 33 and 34).

  1. Mirrors
  2. Lineland and Flatland
  3. Solidland
  4. Magic
  5. Art, Music, Poetry, and Numbers
  6. Galaxies, Suns, and Planets
  7. Plants and Animals
  8. Asymmetry in Animals
  9. The Human Body
  10. The Sinistral Minority
  11. Crystals
  12. Molecules
  13. Carbon
  14. Living Molecules
  15. The Origin of Life
  16. The Origin of Asymmetry
  17. The Fourth Dimension
  18. The Ozma Problem
  19. Mach’s Shock
  20. Parity
  21. Antiparticles
  22. The Fall of Parity
  23. Neutrinos
  24. Mr Split
  25. The Fall of Time Invariance
  26. Where’s the Antimatter?
  27. What Happened to the Monopoles?
  28. The Arrows of Time
  29. Entropy
  30. Time-Reversed Worlds
  31. Time-Reversed Persons and Particles
  32. Early Theories of Matter
  33. Spin
  34. Superstrings

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. Gardner follows the thread of several false leads on the road to the solution of the Ozma Problem, in each case presenting an apparent solution which, on closer examination, turns out to be a false one.

The solution to the Ozma Problem was finally embodied in the famous "Wu experiment" — which was conducted in 1956 by Chinese-American physicist Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997) — involving the beta decay of cobalt-60. This experiment was the first to disprove the conservation of parity. At long last, according to Gardner, it is believed that one could carefully describe the Wu experiment to a distant extraterrestrial intelligence and thereby convey the exact meaning of left/right.

Literary references[edit]

W.H. Auden[edit]

W.H. Auden alludes to The Ambidextrous Universe in his poem "Josef Weinheber" (1965).

Vladimir Nabokov[edit]

Pale Fire
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!
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.