The primary problem with symmetric ciphers is not their security but with key exchange. Once the sender and receiver have exchanged keys, that key can be used to securely communicate, but what secure communication channel was used to communicate the key itself? In particular, it would probably be much easier for an attacker to work to intercept the key than it is to try all the keys in the key space. Another problem is the number of keys needed. If there are n people who need to communicate, then n(n-1)/2 keys are needed for each pair of people to communicate privately. This may be ok for a small number of people but quickly becomes unwieldly for large groups of people.
Public-key ciphers were invented to avoid the key-exchange problem entirely. A public-key cipher uses a pair of keys for sending messages. The two keys belong to the person receiving the message. One key is a public key and may be given to anybody. The other key is a private key and is kept secret by the owner. A sender encrypts a message using the public key and once encrypted, only the private key may be used to decrypt it.
This protocol solves the key-exchange problem inherent with symmetric ciphers. There is no need for the sender and receiver to agree upon a key. All that is required is that some time before secret communication the sender gets a copy of the receiver's public key. Furthermore, the one public key can be used by anybody wishing to communicate with the receiver. So only n keypairs are needed for n people to communicate secretly with one another,
Public-key ciphers are based on one-way trapdoor functions. A one-way function is a function that is easy to compute, but the inverse is hard to compute. For example, it is easy to multiply two prime numbers together to get a composite, but it is difficult to factor a composite into its prime components.a A one-way trapdoor function is similar, but it has a trapdoor. That is, if some piece of information is known, it becomes easy to compute the inverse. For example, if you have a number made of two prime factors, then knowing one of the factors makes it easy to compute the second. Given a public-key cipher based on prime factorization, the public key contains a composite number made from two large prime factors, and the encryption algorithm uses that composite to encrypt the message. The algorithm to decrypt the message requires knowing the prime factors, so decryption is easy if you have the private key containing one of the factors but extremely difficult if you do not have it.
As with good symmetric ciphers, with a good public-key cipher all of the security rests with the key. Therefore, key size is a measure of the system's security, but one cannot compare the size of a symmetric cipher key and a public-key cipher key as a measure of their relative security. In a brute-force attack on a symmetric cipher with a key size of 80 bits, the attacker must enumerate up to 281-1 keys to find the right key. In a brute-force attack on a public-key cipher with a key size of 512 bits, the attacker must factor a composite number encoded in 512 bits (up to 155 decimal digits). The workload for the attacker is fundamentally different depending on the cipher he is attacking. While 128 bits is sufficient for symmetric ciphers, given today's factoring technology public keys with 1024 bits are recommended for most purposes.