The Tilt of the Earth: Preserving Asymmetry in an All Too Logical World

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Geography was never really my subject at school. All that talk of arable farming and market gardening went straight over my head. And there seemed to be a tad too much time dedicated to U-shaped valleys, oxbow lakes, cirques, cwms and corries. What’s with all the glacial erosion?

Our elderly geography teacher, Den, wore a smart suit and tattered gown, and was particularly keen on ensuring we wrote ‘Auctore Deo’ at the top of every essay (‘The enterprise is of God’). Den expressed approval with an elongated ‘goood’, and dismay with a tug at the forelock and an admonishing ‘Don’t do it again!’ This latter expression became his catchphrase. Pupils delighted in shouting it whenever he was near - and disappearing round corners before he could take any action.

‘Don’t do it again!’

Den liked to pass the time testing our knowledge of the conventional signs that appear on Ordnance Survey Maps. Footpath, ferry, single-track railway; gravel pit, golf course, electricity transmission line…

When the concentration of the class was waning, Den would stop dramatically and demand: ‘What’s the tilt of the Earth?’

‘Twenty three and a half degrees,’ we cried in unison.

I was not quite sure at the time why it was so important that we should know the exact tilt of the Earth. But much later it struck me that it is a wonderful thing that the Earth does not sit bolt upright, to attention; that rather it is inclined, like a dandy’s top hat, at a jaunty angle.

The tilt of the Earth seemed to me to explain a good deal. Like many I was instinctively drawn to people, places and things that were a little askew, lop-sided, cock-eyed and crooked: the offbeat lyric and the oddball academic; the eccentric colleague and the curious TV show; the idiosyncratic pub and the irregular street-plan. And I was in equal measure consistently suspicious of the square jawed, level headed, regular looking, straight talking, frank and forthright.

'There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile.
He found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile.
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.’
English Nursery Rhyme

So it came as something of a disappointment when I read that, according to numerous scientific studies, human beings are broadly attracted to people with symmetrical faces. Apparently it’s something to do with our quest for good genes: we assume balanced facial features signify health and longevity.

I beg to differ. The symmetrical face lacks something. It’s too neat and tidy; too regular and even. It’s short on character, forgettable.

Indeed I have been reassured to learn that other academic studies, on perfectly mirrored facial features, suggest that, after all, most people do prefer a slightly asymmetrical countenance.

Alex John Beck - Project Both Sides Of

Alex John Beck - Project Both Sides Of

In his 2014 project, ‘Both Sides Of,‘ photographer Alex John Beck created mirror images of the left and right halves of sitters’ faces and set them side-by-side. There’s something eerie and uncomfortable about the results. The mirrored models look disarmingly alien.

Of course, in the field of commerce there is a strong predisposition to impose logic, order and good sense; to classify and categorise; to tidy up, set straight and smooth over.

But we should always embrace asymmetries – of personality, looks and behaviour. Because difference gets us noticed, suggests character, prompts conversation, lingers in the memory. Difference makes us human. And critically for the communication business, difference creates difference.

So if ever you’re tempted to play things safe, to follow the conventional path, the straight and narrow, remember Den’s instruction. The world tilts at twenty-three and a half degrees. It is skew-whiff. And life isn’t quite logical.

'When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful,
A miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical.
And all the birds in the trees, well they'd be singing so happily,
Oh joyfully, playfully watching me.
But then they sent me away to teach me how to be sensible,
Logical, oh responsible, practical.
And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable,
Oh clinical, oh intellectual, cynical.’

Supertramp, The Logical Song (Richard Davies / Roger Hodgson)

No. 188