Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Subtle Beauty of Chirality

     When I was first learning how to write in kindergarten, I labeled my drawings and schoolwork with my name: SIRK. I couldn't understand why the nuns seemed so frustrated; in my left-handed view of the world, this clearly spelled KRIS. Everything about the way I wrote made perfect sense to me. Starting from the right side of the page, and working my way over to the left, it was plain to see that SIRK spelled KRIS, and using this right-to-left approach prevented my left hand from dragging across the paper, smudging the print. The nuns did not permit the use of erasers, or even spit, to correct mistakes. I clearly remember Sister Mary Nicholas depriving me of a gold star when we were learning to make "g's" because I tried to conceal a misplaced pencil mark with a bit of saliva. Eventually, I conformed and adopted the standard left-to-right approach for English written expression.
     Sometime around the fourth grade, I became obsessed with India. My family was good friends with an Indian family, who had a daughter one year older than me, named Alia. I was so envious of Alia's pierced ears and nose that I obtained some clip-on earrings from a grocery store gumball machine, pressing the clasps as tightly as I could whenever I thought about it, in an attempt to pierce my own ears. Alarmed by this, my parents allowed me to get my ears pierced by a doctor for my 9th birthday. Alia's mother gave me one of her saris, teaching me how to fold and wrap it, and I was utterly determined to wear it to school. My mother vetoed this proposal, so I just wore my sari around the house. Alia taught me some Urdu words, but I what I really wanted to learn was how to write in Urdu; it is one of many languages which is written right-to-left. On a Big Chief tablet, Alia spelled out my name, and it looked like this:
     In 1974, my older sister, Edina (eh DEENAH) came home from Iran, where she and her husband, Mahmoud (MAH mood), were living. Mahmoud had been imprisoned as a dissident by the SAVAK, Iran's secret police, and was being brutally tortured. If there was anyone who has ever come close to being the embodiment of Jesus Christ and Buddha, all rolled up into one, it is Mahmoud. It was horrifying for me to know that he was suffering in prison so far away. Edina had flown to Poland that summer to meet our family while we were visiting our relatives there; this was the first time I'd seen my big sister since she and Mahmoud were married in 1972. She seemed strangely grown up. I now realize this was probably because of the extreme duress she'd experienced over the past year during which Mahmoud had been imprisoned. After our visit in Poland, Edina flew to Italy to visit friends and family on her way back to Iran, and while she was there, she was notified that Mahmoud was being released from jail. She was told she should return to Iran right away. When Edina called my parents to inform them of this, they were emphatic that she should immediately return to the U.S., instead of going to Iran, presumably out of fear that this was all a ploy for the SAVAK to apprehend and imprison her.  Edina flew from Italy to Kansas City, and spent the rest of the summer with us. Mahmoud was soon released from prison, but before Edina went back to Iran, she taught me how to make Adas Polo, a Persian national dish, and how to do some self-defense kicks and punches. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed being around her; she's a naturally gifted teacher. Being a linguist like our father, Edina was fluent in English, Italian, French, Spanish, and now, Farsi. That summer, she accompanied me to my Polish lessons. Because Edina and I shared a mutual fascination with language, she enthusiastically taught me a few Farsi phrases. Like Urdu, the Persian language is written from right-to-left. Edina showed me how to write my name in Persian. It looked something like this:
خنجرمردم اندونزی ومالایا
     Chirality*, which stems from chiros, the Greek word for hand, is a concept used primarily in chemistry and physics to describe an entity or object which cannot be superimposed on its mirror image; the reflections are always different. In chemistry, this is usually due to an asymmetrically positioned carbon molecule; in humans, it is a function of the brain's laterality. Human hands are a perfect example of chirality. One hand receives a disproportionate amount of the left or right hemisphere's attention; this is thought to be what determines whether we become right or left-handed. Have you ever tried shaking someone's right hand with your left hand? It feels funny, similar to putting a right-handed glove on your left hand. A distinct relationship exists between our right and left hands, which differs in comparison to other lateralized body parts, like our feet. Unless you were missing a hand, it wouldn't occur to you to use your left foot to assist your right hand in splitting open the shell of a pistachio, would it? Our hands may look identical, but they differ dramatically from one another. If you hold your right hand up to a mirror, what you'll see is a left hand, reflected back.
     Perhaps one of the earliest lessons we receive in "the right way of doing things" in life is the way in which we learn to write. Although the majority of people in the world are right-handed, not all languages are written left-to-right. As a lefty, the right-to-left approach seems much more intuitive to me. I've tried using left-handed notebooks, but they don't adequately address the awkwardness I experience, writing in the conventional manner. The same ideas can be expressed equally well using either approach, making the direction in which we write them seem relatively unimportant. No one really knows why English is left-to-right, Persian is right-to-left, or Chinese is right-to-left and vertically-oriented. There is not a right way or a wrong way to write; it's a culturally dependent variable.  If I were to look in the mirror as a fourth grader, dressed in my sari while writing a story, I would have seen a fair-skinned, blue-eyed Indian girl, furiously scribbling away about the injustice in the world with her right hand. Herein lies the subtle beauty of chirality. Like enantiomeric reflections of one another, brilliant in our asymmetry, I'd observe two girls mostly alike, yet curiously diverse, using opposite hands in different directions to articulate a commonly shared idea.

Chirality is pronounced with a hard "K"


  1. Thank goodness everything is going digital. Left-handedness is not a problem on the keyboard. I've never done well with left-handed utensils though. My grandfather gave me a pair of his left-handed scissors and I can't stand using them. It's the same for can openers and notebooks.

    1. I am hopelessly left-handed, but have adjusted pretty well, I think. Have never tried using a left handed can opener! The wirebound left-handed notebooks are sort of weird, too weird, really. Thank goodness for computers!