Let’s begin with a definition. A palindrome is a word or a series of words that is spelled the same way backwards and forwards. For example: radar, level, “Madam, in Eden, I’m Adam”, “Never odd or even”. A palindrome can also be a sequence of numbers.
I’ve always thought that palindromes were pretty neat, but I hadn’t given them much serious thought until I read a fascinating article about them by Richard Lederer, in the July 2011 issue of Mensa magazine. In this article, Lederer included a quote by Alistair Reid, who stated “The dream which occupies the tortuous mind of every palindromist is that somewhere within the confines of the language lurks the Great Palindrome, the nutshell which not only fulfills the intricate demands of the art, flowing sweetly in both directions, but which also contains the Final Truth of Things“.
In this article, I’m going to attempt to answer the question: why are palindromes so beguiling?
There is a link between palindromes and a quest to uncover a long-hidden cryptic message, in Jules Verne’s novel Journey To The Center Of The Earth. The novel’s protagonist, Professor Lindenrock, purchased a runic manuscript, and then spent days trying to decipher it. When the message was finally translated it instructed him to travel to the centre of the Earth, which is a palindromic journey. Starting at the Earth’s surface, one would progress through the crust, the upper mantle, the lower mantle, the outer core and the inner core before finally arriving at the centre. At this point, being in the centre of a sphere, you will encounter everything in the reverse order during the return journey, no matter which direction you travel. After completing his palindromic journey, Lindenrock returned to Hamburg, and was hailed as one of the greatest scientists in history.
Humans are hard-wired to look for patterns in things. Babies can recognize faces better than adults, and although that ability diminishes with age, it is still very prevalent in adulthood. During the past few years, there have been numerous stories in the news about people claiming to see the face of Jesus in a piece of French toast, a chocolate bar, a fragment of their breakfast cereal or in a stain on a wall. We are hard-wired to recognize faces, so that’s typically what we see when gazing at some nebulous design. Not only do we see patterns, but we feel that these patterns must have some inherent meaning – enough to convince us to change our inward-looking ways, or at least to sell the item on eBay for a tidy profit. Similarly, a pattern contained in a series of words makes us infer some deep significance beyond their semantic meaning.
I’m going to use a bit of interpretative license and assume that “The Final Truth Of Things” in Alistair Reid’s quote, can also be construed as the secret of the universe or even the meaning of life itself. The ultimate palindrome may in fact reveal the secret of the universe – but only if the universe is bilaterally symmetrical. I don’t imagine that our universe is bilaterally symmetrical, but we humans are, which is one reason why I believe that we find palindromes so intriguing. The bilateral symmetry of palindromes is found not only within our bodies – it permeates our society, as the following examples will show.
According to social anthropologist Desmond Morris, there is a strong correlation between beauty and symmetry. The more symmetrical one’s face is, the more beautiful one is perceived to be. Therefore, the perfect bilateral symmetry in a palindrome implies an inherent beauty in the word or phrase.
Encountering a palindrome is much like gazing into a mirror and seeing the reversed image of ourselves. Historically, a mirror displays not only our physical appearance, but also our soul. Therefore, one way to gaze into our own soul and see our essence is to look in the mirror. While our bodies are bilaterally symmetrical, our entire being – body and soul, on either side of the mirror – is also bilaterally symmetrical. According to legend, vampires, who have no souls, are not visible in mirrors.
In the 1960s, a popular psychological test was the Rorschach ink blot test. Ink would be spread onto a sheet of paper, which was then folded in half, creating a bilaterally symmetrical design. The subjects were then asked to interpret the design. Based on their answers, the psychologist would be able to assess their personality.
If you write a palindrome on a piece of paper, and then bisect it with a mirror, you will see in the mirror, the entire word or phrase (although with the letters reversed in the second half). In 1967, this mirror technique was used to uncover a “secret message” in the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album. At the time, some fans were convinced that Paul McCartney had died and was replaced by someone called Billy Shears, who sang on the album. As proof, they invited fans to place a mirror across the drum on the album’s cover, so that it bisects the word “HEARTS” horizontally. A secret message is revealed – “HE DIE” – with a crude diamond shape (which was interpreted as an arrow) directly underneath Paul’s image. An early example of steganography perhaps…
Bilateral symmetry is also used in society to illustrate a sense of fairness, as shown in this diagram of the Scales Of Justice. Fairness and equality are achieved only when the scale is perfectly balanced and the diagram becomes symmetrical. This sense of balance is also present in Newton’s Third Law of Motion: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
On a larger scale, a kind of bilateral symmetry extends to the entire universe. The writers of prime-time network television programs have created a parallel universe that is the opposite of ours. One example is a Seinfeld episode broadcast in 1996, called The Bizzaro Jerry. Another example is the Star Trek (Original Series) episode Mirror, Mirror, in which Kirk, Uhura, Scotty and McCoy are transported to an alternate universe, where their counterparts are barbaric instead of civilized. For non-Trekkies, this is the episode in which Spock has a goatee.
If there is a Final Truth of Things contained in the proverbial Great Palindrome, then I propose that there will someday exist, The Ultimate Computer Program, which when run, will output the secret of the universe. Naturally, its source code, when displayed as a series of binary numbers, will be a palindrome. I hate to disappoint Douglas Adams fans, but I already know that the program’s output will not be 42. That’s because 42 expressed in binary is: 101010.
In the spirit of uncovering the Final Truth of Things, I’d like to share with you something that I consider an undiscovered gem – a song called Bob, written by (all of people), Weird Al Yankovic. In this song, he imitates the incomprehensible singing style of Bob Dylan. The video itself is a parody of Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues video, complete with two characters in the background who actually resemble Alan Ginsberg and Bob Neuwirth. Bob is an inspired title, but that’s not why I like it. The most intriguing part of the song is its lyrics; every line is a palindrome, yet no mention of this was made in the CD liner notes – it’s as if the palindromes were a musical Easter Egg. Not only that, but every second line rhymes. Weird Al may act silly most of the time, but every now and then he does something that really impresses me!
And finally, a bit of trivia. According to the Urban Dictionary, the unofficial term for the irrational fear of palindromes is: aibohphobia.
Enjoy this day – November 2, 2011!