Between symmetry and asymmetry: spontaneous symmetry breaking as narrative knowing

Research output: Journal contributionsJournal articlesResearchpeer-review


The paper presents a historical-epistemological analysis of the notion of “spontaneous symmetry breaking”, which I believe today provides a template for conceiving the relationship between symmetry and asymmetry in physics as well as in other areas of the natural sciences. The central thesis of the paper is that spontaneous symmetry breaking represents an instance of “narrative knowing” in the sense developed by recent research in history and philosophy of science (Morgan and Wise (eds) SI narrative in science, Studies in history and philosophy of science, 2017a). Spontaneous symmetry breaking is best understood as a hybrid narrative comprising formulas, verbal statements, images, and at times also other media. This flexible notion can be deployed in different variations, allowing to explain a broad range of non-symmetric phenomena or models as resulting from (not necessarily observable) processes of loss of symmetry. I will support this thesis by first analysing in detail the way in which spontaneous symmetry breaking, and in particular electroweak symmetry breakdown, are presented in today’s physics textbooks and reference works, and then by reconstructing the emergence of the hybrid construct from the late 1950s until the 1970s, when spontaneous symmetry breaking definitively established itself as a key physical notion.

Original languageEnglish
Issue number4
Pages (from-to)3919-3948
Number of pages30
Publication statusPublished - 01.04.2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The research presented here was funded by the project “Exploring the “dark ages” of particle physics: isospin, strangeness and the construction of physical–mathematical concepts in the pre-Standard-Model era (ca. 1950–1965)” (German Research Council (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG)) grant BO 4062/2-1), and by the Institute for Advances Study on Media Cultures of Computer Simulation (MECS), Leuphana Universität Lüneburg (DFG research Grant KFOR 1927).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019, Springer Nature B.V.