Maths In Nature Essayist

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How many universes are there? What has made us into who we are? Is there absolute truth?

These are difficult questions, but mathematics has something to say about each of them. It can probe the physical reality that surrounds us, shed light on human interaction and psychology, and it answers, as well as raises, many of the philosophical questions our minds have allowed us to dream up.

On this page we bring together articles and podcasts that examine what mathematics can say about the nature of the reality we live in. They look at physical reality, the mind, consciousness, the emergence of life, philosophy and mathematics itself. The page will be continually updated with new relevant articles, so keep looking and get reading!

We've grouped our articles into three categories:

Mathematics and physical reality

Hooray for Higgs — "It's a great day for particle physics," says Ben Allanach, a theoretical physicist at the University of Cambridge. "It's very exciting, I think we're on the verge of the Higgs discovery." And indeed, it seems like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN has given particle physics an early Christmas present — compelling evidence that the famous Higgs boson exists.
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What is time? — Newton thought that time was absolute. Einstein thought it was relative. Today some people think it doesn't exist at all. Or is it an emergent phenomenon? Paul Davies explores.
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This interview is also available as a podcast.

Is time travel allowed? — We're all on a journey towards the future, but can we travel into the past? Find out with Kip Thorne.

What happened before the Big Bang? — Did the Big Bang mark the beginning of time? Not if we live in a bubble multiverse, says John D. Barrow.

Shattering crystal symmetries —In 1982 Dan Shechtman discovered a crystal that would revolutionise chemistry. He has just been awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery — but has the Nobel committee missed out a chance to honour a mathematician for his role in this revolution as well?

Exploding stars clinch Nobel Prize —This year's Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for a discovery that proved Einstein wrong and right at the same time.

Countdown to the Higgs? — Are we close to finding the Higgs? Ben Allanach explains it is not about catching a glimpse of the beast itself, but instead keeping a careful count of the evidence it leaves behind.

Does quantum physics really describe reality? — Quantum physics is a funny thing. With counterintuitive ideas such as superposition and entanglement, it doesn't seem to resemble reality as we know it, yet it is an incredibly successful theory of how the physical world operates. In this podcast we speak to experts including John Polkinghorne and Roger Penrose about how we can resolve the mysteries of quantum physics with our experience of reality. And we find out why quantum physics is just like riding a bike...

Flying home with quantum physics — Quantum mechanics is usually associated with weird and counterintuitve phenomena we can't observe in real life. But it turns out that quantum processes can occur in living organisms, too, and with very concrete consequences. Some species of birds use quantum mechanics to navigate. Studying these little creatures' quantum compass may help us achieve the holy grail of computer science: building a quantum computer. You can also listen to the interview this article is based on as a podcast.

Biology's next microscope, mathematics' next physics — It is thought that the next great advances in biology and medicine will be discovered with mathematics. As biology stands on the brink of becoming a theoretical science, Thomas Fink asks if there is more to this collaboration than maths acting as biology's newest microscope. Will theoretical biology lead to new and exciting maths, just as theoretical physics did in the last two centuries? And is there a mathematically elegant story behind life?

And the Nobel Prize in Mathematics goes to... — Well, it goes to no one because there isn't a Nobel Prize for maths. Some have speculated that Alfred Nobel neglected maths because his wife ran off with a mathematician, but the rumour seems to be unfounded. But whatever the reason for its non-appearance in the Nobel list, it's maths that makes the science-based Nobel subjects possible and it usually plays a fundamental role in the some of the laureates' work. Here we'll have a look at two of the prizes awarded this year, in physics and economics.

What's happening at the LHC? — This article gives an update on what's happening at the Large Hadron Collider, as of February 2011. It is based on an interview with John Ellis, outgoing leader of the theory division at CERN, who describes some of the mysteries the LHC may solve.

Hidden dimensions — That geometry should be relevant to physics is no surprise. After all, space is the arena in which physics happens. What is surprising, though, is the extent to which the geometry of space actually determines physics and just how exotic the geometric structure of our Universe appears to be. Plus met up with mathematician Shing-Tung Yau to find out more. You can also read our review of a book co-written by Yau, called The shape of inner space.

Exotic spheres, or why 4-dimensional space is a crazy place — The world we live in is strictly 3-dimensional: up/down, left/right, and forwards/backwards, these are the only ways to move. For years, scientists and science fiction writers have contemplated the possibilities of higher dimensional spaces. What would a 4- or 5-dimensional universe look like? Or might it even be true that we already inhabit such a space, that our 3-dimensional home is no more than a slice through a higher dimensional realm, just as a slice through a 3-dimensional cube produces a 2-dimensional square?

The Able Prize 2011 goes to John Milnor — This news story examines the work of John Milnor, who discovered (invented?) the exotic spheres described in the above article.

Is space like a chessboard? — Physicists at the University of California, Los Angeles set out to design a better transistor and ended up with a discovery that may lead to a new explanation of electron spin and possibly even the nature of space.

Benoît Mandelbrot has died — Benoît Mandelbrot, the father of fractal geometry, died in October 2010 at the age of 85. His work shed important light on how complexity can arise from simple rules.

Classroom activity: The game of life — One of the amazing things about life is its sheer complexity. How can a bunch of mindless cells combine to form something as complex as the human brain, or as delicate, beautiful and highly organised as the patterns on a butterfly's wing? Maths has some surprising answers you can explore yourself with this interactive activity.

The illusory Universe — With online socialising and alternative realities like Second Life it may seem as if reality has become a whole lot bigger over the last few years. In one branch of theoretical physics, though, things seem to be going the other way. String theorists have been developing the idea that the space and time we inhabit, including ourselves, might be nothing more than an illusion, a hologram conjured up by a reality which lacks a crucial feature of the world as we perceive it: the third dimension. Plus talks to Juan Maldacena to find out more.

Particle hunting at the LHC — It's hard to avoid CERN these days. Last year's successful switch-on of CERN's Large Hadron Collider, followed by a blow-out which is currently being fixed, sparked wide-spread media coverage, and currently CERN stars in the Tom Hanks movie Angels and Demons. So what goes on at CERN and why the hubbub about the Large Hadron Collider, known as the LHC?

Lambda marks the spot — the biggest problem in theoretical physics — The mathematical maps in theoretical physics have been highly successful in guiding our understanding of the universe at the largest and smallest scales. Linking these two scales together is one of the golden goals of theoretical physics. But, at the very edges of our understanding of these fields, one of the most controversial areas of physics lies where these maps merge: the cosmological constant problem.

Outer space: Are the constants of nature really constant? — Are the unchanging features of the Universe really unchanging?

Mathematics and the mind

Gut logic — Human reasoning is biased and illogical. At least that's what a huge body of psychological research seems to show. But now a psychological scientist from the University of Toulouse in France has come up with a new theory: that logical and probabilistic thinking is an intuitive part of decision making, only its conclusions often lose out to heuristic reasoning.

Convex is complex — If computers are ever going to be as clever as humans they'll have to be able to solve really hard problems. But what do we mean by "hard" and how hard are the hardest problems? This news story explores the concept of NP completeness using a result on the convexity of mathematical functions as an example.

Born to count — People as well as animals are born with a sense for numbers. But is this inborn number sense related to mathematical ability? A new study suggests that it is.

Guilt counts — Guilt, so some people have suggested, is what makes us nice. When we do someone a favour or choose not to exploit someone vulnerable, we do it because we fear the guilt we'd feel otherwise. A team of neuroscientists, psychologists and economists has produced some new results in this area, using a model from psychological game theory.

Wiring up brains — The human brain faces a difficult trade-off. On the one hand it needs to be complex to ensure high performance, and on the other it needs to minimise "wiring cost" — the sum of the length of all the connections — because communication over distance takes a lot of energy. It's a problem well-known to computer scientists. And it seems that market driven human invention and natural selection have come up with similar solutions.

Neurotweets: #hashtagging the brain — We like to think of the human brain as special, but as we reported in the above article, it has quite a lot in common with worm brains and even with high-performance information processing systems. But how does it compare to online social networks? In a recent lecture the psychiatrist Ed Bullmore put this question to the test.

Struggling with your maths? — If you are, then you may be one of the 5 to 7% of the population suffering from dyscalculia, the mathematical equivalent of dyslexia. But unlike many dyslexia sufferers, you probably haven't received the help you need to cope with your condition. As a recent article published in the journal Science points out, dyscalculia is the "poor relation" of dyslexia.

Baby robots feel the love — Researchers have unveiled the first prototypes of robots that can develop emotions and express them too. If you treat these robots well, they'll form an attachment to you, looking for hugs when they feel sad and responding to reassuring strokes when they are distressed. But how do you get emotions into machines that only understand the language of maths?

Spaceships are doing it for themselves — It requires only a little processing power, but it's a giant leap for robotkind: engineers at the University of Southampton have developed a way of equipping spacecraft and satellites with human-like reasoning capabilities, which will enable them to make important decisions for themselves.

Finding your way home without knowing where you are — Foraging ants have a hard life, embarking on long and arduous trips several times a day, until they drop dead from exhaustion. The trips are not just long, they also follow complex zig-zag paths. So how do ants manage to find their way back home? And how do they manage to do so along a straight line? Their secret lies in a little geometry.

Uncoiling the spiral: Maths and visual hallucinations — Think drug-induced hallucinations, and the whirly, spirally, tunnel-vision-like patterns of psychedelic imagery immediately spring to mind. But it's not just hallucinogenic drugs that conjure up these geometric structures. People have reported seeing them in near-death experiences, following sensory deprivation, or even just after applying pressure to the eyeballs. So what can these patterns tell us about the structure of our brains?

Book review: Natural computing — Computing is at the heart of our modern world, but what are its frontiers? This book presents new trends in this fast growing field. Although the topics covered range from spacecraft control to embedding intelligence in bacteria, they all coincide in one fundamental point: the future of computing is a synthesis with nature.

Mathematics, philosophy and truth

Freedom and physics — Most of us think that we have the capacity to act freely. Our sense of morality, our legal system, our whole culture is based on the idea that there is such a thing as free will. It's embarrassing then that classical physics seems to tell a different story. And what does quantum theory have to say about free will?

Free, from top to bottom? — A traditional view of science holds that every system — including ourselves — is no more than the sum of its parts. To understand it, all you have to do is take it apart and see what's happening to the smallest constituents. But the mathematician and cosmologist George Ellis disagrees. He believes that complexity can arise from simple components and physical effects can have non-physical causes, opening a door for our free will to make a difference in a physical world.

John Conway: discovering free will (part I) — On August 19, 2004, John Conway was standing with his friend Simon Kochen at the blackboard in Kochen’s office in Princeton. They had been trying to understand a thought experiment involving quantum physics and relativity. What they discovered, and how they described it, created one of the most controversial theorems of their careers: The Free Will Theorem.

John Conway: discovering free will (part II) — In the second part of our interview, John Conway explains how the Kochen-Specker Theorem from 1965 not only seemed to explain the EPR Paradox, it also provided the first hint of Conway and Kochen's Free Will Theorem.

John Conway: discovering free will (part III) — Inthe second part of our interview, John Conway explains how the Kochen-Specker Theorem from 1965 not only seemed to explain the EPR Paradox, it also provided the first hint of Conway and Kochen's Free Will Theorem.

This is not a carrot: Paraconsistent mathematics — Paraconsistent mathematics is a type of mathematics in which contradictions may be true. In such a system it is perfectly possible for a statement A and its negation not A to both be true. How can this be, and be coherent? What does it all mean?

The philosophy of applied mathematics — We all take for granted that mathematics can be used to describe the world, but when you think about it this fact is rather stunning. This article explores what the applicability of maths says about the various branches of mathematical philosophy.

Searching for the missing truth — Many people like mathematics because it gives definite answers. Things are either true or false, and true things seem true in a very fundamental way. But it's not quite like that. You can actually build different versions of maths in which statements are true or false depending on your preference. So is maths just a game in which we choose the rules to suit our purpose? Or is there a "correct" set of rules to use? We find out with the mathematician Hugh Woodin.

Picking holes in mathematics — In the 1930s the logician Kurt Gödel showed that if you set out proper rules for mathematics, you lose the ability to decide whether certain statements are true or false. This is rather shocking and you may wonder why Gödel's result hasn't wiped out mathematics once and for all. The answer is that, initially at least, the unprovable statements logicians came up with were quite contrived. But are they about to enter mainstream mathematics?

The revelation game — Is it rational to believe in a god? The most famous rational argument in favour of belief was made by Blaise Pascal, but what happens if we apply modern game theory to the question? This article has been adapted from the book Game theory and the humanities, which has been reviewed in Plus.

Constructive mathematics — If you like mathematics because things are either true or false, then you'll be worried to hear that in some quarters this basic concept is hotly disputed. In this article Phil Wilson looks at constructivist mathematics, which holds that some things are neither true, nor false, nor anything in between.

Unreasonable effectiveness — When it comes to describing natural phenomena, mathematics is amazingly — even unreasonably — effective. In this article Mario Livio looks at an example of strings and knots, taking us from the mysteries of physical matter to the most esoteric outpost of pure mathematics, and back again.

Infinite investigators: Part I — What's the nature of infinity? Are all infinities the same? And what happens if you've got infinitely many infinities? This article explores how these questions brought triumph to one man and ruin to another, ventures to the limits of mathematics and finds that, with infinity, you're spoilt for choice.

Infinite investigators: Part II — We continue the investigation into Cantor and Cohen's work, looking at the continuum hypothesis, the question that caused Cantor so much grief.

Teacher package: Logic — In some sense, all of maths should come under the label "logic", but mathematical logic has shown that mathematics isn't entirely logical. Makes sense? If not, then this teacher package may help.

Book review: The big questions, mathematics — With twenty skillfully written essays Tony Crilly paints a broad-stroke picture of modern mathematics, focusing on some of the most exciting topics. This book is intended for people whose acquaintance with mathematics is limited to their high school years, but who want to know "what all this fuss is about". It is ideal for those who have heard that mathematicians talk about imaginary numbers and unbreakable codes, and want to know how much of it, if any, is true.

Patterns in nature are visible regularities of form found in the natural world. These patterns recur in different contexts and can sometimes be modelled mathematically. Natural patterns include symmetries, trees, spirals, meanders, waves, foams, tessellations, cracks and stripes. Early Greek philosophers studied pattern, with Plato, Pythagoras and Empedocles attempting to explain order in nature. The modern understanding of visible patterns developed gradually over time.

In the 19th century, Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau examined soap films, leading him to formulate the concept of a minimal surface. German biologist and artist Ernst Haeckel painted hundreds of marine organisms to emphasise their symmetry. Scottish biologist D'Arcy Thompson pioneered the study of growth patterns in both plants and animals, showing that simple equations could explain spiral growth. In the 20th century, British mathematician Alan Turing predicted mechanisms of morphogenesis which give rise to patterns of spots and stripes. Hungarian biologist Aristid Lindenmayer and French American mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot showed how the mathematics of fractals could create plant growth patterns.

Mathematics, physics and chemistry can explain patterns in nature at different levels. Patterns in living things are explained by the biological processes of natural selection and sexual selection. Studies of pattern formation make use of computer models to simulate a wide range of patterns.


Early Greek philosophers attempted to explain order in nature, anticipating modern concepts. Plato (c. 427 – c. 347 BC) — looking only at his work on natural patterns — argued for the existence of universals. He considered these to consist of ideal forms (εἶδοςeidos: "form") of which physical objects are never more than imperfect copies. Thus, a flower may be roughly circular, but it is never a perfect mathematical circle.[2]Pythagoras explained patterns in nature like the harmonies of music as arising from number, which he took to be the basic constituent of existence.[3]Empedocles to an extent anticipated Darwin's evolutionary explanation for the structures of organisms.[4]

In 1202, Leonardo Fibonacci (c. 1170 – c. 1250) introduced the Fibonacci number sequence to the western world with his book Liber Abaci.[5] Fibonacci gave an (unrealistic) biological example, on the growth in numbers of a theoretical rabbit population.[6]

In 1658, the English physician and philosopher Sir Thomas Browne discussed "how Nature Geometrizeth" in The Garden of Cyrus, citing Pythagorean numerology involving the number 5, and the Platonic form of the quincunx pattern. The discourse's central chapter features examples and observations of the quincunx in botany.[7]

In 1917, D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860–1948) published his book On Growth and Form. His description of phyllotaxis and the Fibonacci sequence, the mathematical relationships in the spiral growth patterns of plants, is classic. He showed that simple equations could describe all the apparently complex spiral growth patterns of animal horns and mollusc shells.[8]

The Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau (1801–1883) formulated the mathematical problem of the existence of a minimal surface with a given boundary, which is now named after him. He studied soap films intensively, formulating Plateau's laws which describe the structures formed by films in foams.

The German psychologist Adolf Zeising (1810–1876) claimed that the golden ratio was expressed in the arrangement of plant parts, in the skeletons of animals and the branching patterns of their veins and nerves, as well as in the geometry of crystals.[10][11][12]

Ernst Haeckel (1834–1919) painted beautiful illustrations of marine organisms, in particular Radiolaria, emphasising their symmetry to support his faux-Darwinian theories of evolution.

The American photographer Wilson Bentley (1865–1931) took the first micrograph of a snowflake in 1885.[14]

In 1952, Alan Turing (1912–1954), better known for his work on computing and codebreaking, wrote The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis, an analysis of the mechanisms that would be needed to create patterns in living organisms, in the process called morphogenesis.[15] He predicted oscillatingchemical reactions, in particular the Belousov–Zhabotinsky reaction. These activator-inhibitor mechanisms can, Turing suggested, generate patterns of stripes and spots in animals, and contribute to the spiral patterns seen in plant phyllotaxis.

In 1968, the Hungarian theoretical biologist Aristid Lindenmayer (1925–1989) developed the L-system, a formal grammar which can be used to model plant growth patterns in the style of fractals.[17] L-systems have an alphabet of symbols that can be combined using production rules to build larger strings of symbols, and a mechanism for translating the generated strings into geometric structures. In 1975, after centuries of slow development of the mathematics of patterns by Gottfried Leibniz, Georg Cantor, Helge von Koch, Wacław Sierpiński and others, Benoît Mandelbrot wrote a famous paper, How Long Is the Coast of Britain? Statistical Self-Similarity and Fractional Dimension, crystallising mathematical thought into the concept of the fractal.[18]


Living things like orchids, hummingbirds, and the peacock's tail have abstract designs with a beauty of form, pattern and colour that artists struggle to match.[19] The beauty that people perceive in nature has causes at different levels, notably in the mathematics that governs what patterns can physically form, and among living things in the effects of natural selection, that govern how patterns evolve.}

Mathematics seeks to discover and explain abstract patterns or regularities of all kinds.[21][22] Visual patterns in nature find explanations in chaos theory, fractals, logarithmic spirals, topology and other mathematical patterns. For example, L-systems form convincing models of different patterns of tree growth.[17]

The laws of physics apply the abstractions of mathematics to the real world, often as if it were perfect. For example, a crystal is perfect when it has no structural defects such as dislocations and is fully symmetric. Exact mathematical perfection can only approximate real objects.[23] Visible patterns in nature are governed by physical laws; for example, meanders can be explained using fluid dynamics.

In biology, natural selection can cause the development of patterns in living things for several reasons, including camouflage,[24]sexual selection,[24] and different kinds of signalling, including mimicry[25] and cleaning symbiosis.[26] In plants, the shapes, colours, and patterns of insect-pollinatedflowers like the lily have evolved to attract insects such as bees. Radial patterns of colours and stripes, some visible only in ultraviolet light serve as nectar guides that can be seen at a distance.[27]

Types of pattern[edit]


Further information: Symmetry in biology, Floral symmetry, and Crystal symmetry

Symmetry is pervasive in living things. Animals mainly have bilateral or mirror symmetry, as do the leaves of plants and some flowers such as orchids. Plants often have radial or rotational symmetry, as do many flowers and some groups of animals such as sea anemones. Fivefold symmetry is found in the echinoderms, the group that includes starfish, sea urchins, and sea lilies.

Among non-living things, snowflakes have striking sixfold symmetry; each flake's structure forms a record of the varying conditions during its crystallization, with nearly the same pattern of growth on each of its six arms.Crystals in general have a variety of symmetries and crystal habits; they can be cubic or octahedral, but true crystals cannot have fivefold symmetry (unlike quasicrystals). Rotational symmetry is found at different scales among non-living things, including the crown-shaped splash pattern formed when a drop falls into a pond, and both the spheroidal shape and rings of a planet like Saturn.

Symmetry has a variety of causes. Radial symmetry suits organisms like sea anemones whose adults do not move: food and threats may arrive from any direction. But animals that move in one direction necessarily have upper and lower sides, head and tail ends, and therefore a left and a right. The head becomes specialised with a mouth and sense organs (cephalisation), and the body becomes bilaterally symmetric (though internal organs need not be).[34] More puzzling is the reason for the fivefold (pentaradiate) symmetry of the echinoderms. Early echinoderms were bilaterally symmetrical, as their larvae still are. Sumrall and Wray argue that the loss of the old symmetry had both developmental and ecological causes.[35]

Trees, fractals[edit]

Fractals are infinitely self-similar, iterated mathematical constructs having fractal dimension.[18][36][37] Infinite iteration is not possible in nature so all 'fractal' patterns are only approximate. For example, the leaves of ferns and umbellifers (Apiaceae) are only self-similar (pinnate) to 2, 3 or 4 levels. Fern-like growth patterns occur in plants and in animals including bryozoa, corals, hydrozoa like the air fern, Sertularia argentea, and in non-living things, notably electrical discharges. Lindenmayer system fractals can model different patterns of tree growth by varying a small number of parameters including branching angle, distance between nodes or branch points (internode length), and number of branches per branch point.[17]

Fractal-like patterns occur widely in nature, in phenomena as diverse as clouds, river networks, geologic fault lines, mountains, coastlines,[38]animal coloration, snow flakes,[39]crystals,[40]blood vessel branching,[41] and ocean waves.[42]


Further information: phyllotaxis

Spirals are common in plants and in some animals, notably molluscs. For example, in the nautilus, a cephalopod mollusc, each chamber of its shell is an approximate copy of the next one, scaled by a constant factor and arranged in a logarithmic spiral.[43] Given a modern understanding of fractals, a growth spiral can be seen as a special case of self-similarity.

Plant spirals can be seen in phyllotaxis, the arrangement of leaves on a stem, and in the arrangement (parastichy[45]) of other parts as in compositeflower heads and seed heads like the sunflower or fruit structures like the pineapple[46]:337 and snake fruit, as well as in the pattern of scales in pine cones, where multiple spirals run both clockwise and anticlockwise. These arrangements have explanations at different levels – mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology – each individually correct, but all necessary together. Phyllotaxis spirals can be generated mathematically from Fibonacci ratios: the Fibonacci sequence runs 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13... (each subsequent number being the sum of the two preceding ones). For example, when leaves alternate up a stem, one rotation of the spiral touches two leaves, so the pattern or ratio is 1/2. In hazel the ratio is 1/3; in apricot it is 2/5; in pear it is 3/8; in almond it is 5/13.[48] In disc phyllotaxis as in the sunflower and daisy, the florets are arranged in Fermat's spiral with Fibonacci numbering, at least when the flowerhead is mature so all the elements are the same size. Fibonacci ratios approximate the golden angle, 137.508°, which governs the curvature of Fermat's spiral.[49]

From the point of view of physics, spirals are lowest-energy configurations[50] which emerge spontaneously through self-organizing processes in dynamic systems.[51] From the point of view of chemistry, a spiral can be generated by a reaction-diffusion process, involving both activation and inhibition. Phyllotaxis is controlled by proteins that manipulate the concentration of the plant hormone auxin, which activates meristem growth, alongside other mechanisms to control the relative angle of buds around the stem. From a biological perspective, arranging leaves as far apart as possible in any given space is favoured by natural selection as it maximises access to resources, especially sunlight for photosynthesis.[46]

Chaos, flow, meanders[edit]

In mathematics, a dynamical system is chaotic if it is (highly) sensitive to initial conditions (the so-called "butterfly effect"[53]), which requires the mathematical properties of topological mixing and denseperiodic orbits.[54]

Alongside fractals, chaos theory ranks as an essentially universal influence on patterns in nature. There is a relationship between chaos and fractals—the strange attractors in chaotic systems have a fractal dimension.[55] Some cellular automata, simple sets of mathematical rules that generate patterns, have chaotic behaviour, notably Stephen Wolfram's Rule 30.[56]

Vortex streets are zigzagging patterns of whirling vortices created by the unsteady separation of flow of a fluid, most often air or water, over obstructing objects.[57] Smooth (laminar) flow starts to break up when the size of the obstruction or the velocity of the flow become large enough compared to the viscosity of the fluid.

Meanders are sinuous bends in rivers or other channels, which form as a fluid, most often water, flows around bends. As soon as the path is slightly curved, the size and curvature of each loop increases as helical flow drags material like sand and gravel across the river to the inside of the bend. The outside of the loop is left clean and unprotected, so erosion accelerates, further increasing the meandering in a powerful positive feedback loop.[58]

Waves, dunes[edit]

Waves are disturbances that carry energy as they move. Mechanical waves propagate through a medium – air or water, making it oscillate as they pass by.[59]Wind waves are sea surface waves that create the characteristic chaotic pattern of any large body of water, though their statistical behaviour can be predicted with wind wave models.[60] As waves in water or wind pass over sand, they create patterns of ripples. When winds blow over large bodies of sand, they create dunes, sometimes in extensive dune fields as in the Taklamakan desert. Dunes may form a range of patterns including crescents, very long straight lines, stars, domes, parabolas, and longitudinal or seif ('sword') shapes.[61]

Barchans or crescent dunes are produced by wind acting on desert sand; the two horns of the crescent and the slip face point downwind. Sand blows over the upwind face, which stands at about 15 degrees from the horizontal, and falls onto the slip face, where it accumulates up to the angle of repose of the sand, which is about 35 degrees. When the slip face exceeds the angle of repose, the sand avalanches, which is a nonlinear behaviour: the addition of many small amounts of sand causes nothing much to happen, but then the addition of a further small amount suddenly causes a large amount to avalanche.[62] Apart from this nonlinearity, barchans behave rather like solitary waves.[63]

Bubbles, foam[edit]

A soap bubble forms a sphere, a surface with minimal area — the smallest possible surface area for the volume enclosed. Two bubbles together form a more complex shape: the outer surfaces of both bubbles are spherical; these surfaces are joined by a third spherical surface as the smaller bubble bulges slightly into the larger one.

A foam is a mass of bubbles; foams of different materials occur in nature. Foams composed of soap films obey Plateau's laws, which require three soap films to meet at each edge at 120° and four soap edges to meet at each vertex at the tetrahedral angle of about 109.5°. Plateau's laws further require films to be smooth and continuous, and to have a constant average curvature at every point. For example, a film may remain nearly flat on average by being curved up in one direction (say, left to right) while being curved downwards in another direction (say, front to back).[65] Structures with minimal surfaces can be used as tents. Lord Kelvin identified the problem of the most efficient way to pack cells of equal volume as a foam in 1887; his solution uses just one solid, the bitruncated cubic honeycomb with very slightly curved faces to meet Plateau's laws. No better solution was found until 1993 when Denis Weaire and Robert Phelan proposed the Weaire–Phelan structure; the Beijing National Aquatics Center adapted the structure for their outer wall in the 2008 Summer Olympics.

At the scale of living cells, foam patterns are common; radiolarians, spongespicules, silicoflagellateexoskeletons and the calcite skeleton of a sea urchin, Cidaris rugosa, all resemble mineral casts of Plateau foam boundaries.[68] The skeleton of the Radiolarian, Aulonia hexagona, a beautiful marine form drawn by Ernst Haeckel, looks as if it is a sphere composed wholly of hexagons, but this is mathematically impossible. The Euler characteristic states that for any convex polyhedron, the number of faces plus the number of vertices (corners) equals the number of edges plus two. A result of this formula is that any closed polyhedron of hexagons has to include exactly 12 pentagons, like a soccer ball, Buckminster Fullergeodesic dome, or fullerene molecule. This can be visualised by noting that a mesh of hexagons is flat like a sheet of chicken wire, but each pentagon that is added forces the mesh to bend (there are fewer corners, so the mesh is pulled in).


Main article: tessellation

Tessellations are patterns formed by repeating tiles all over a flat surface. There are 17 wallpaper groups of tilings.[70] While common in art and design, exactly repeating tilings are less easy to find in living things. The cells in the paper nests of social wasps, and the wax cells in honeycomb built by honey bees are well-known examples. Among animals, bony fish, reptiles or the pangolin, or fruits like the salak are protected by overlapping scales or osteoderms, these form more-or-less exactly repeating units, though often the scales in fact vary continuously in size. Among flowers, the snake's head fritillary, Fritillaria meleagris, have a tessellated chequerboard pattern on their petals. The structures of minerals provide good examples of regularly repeating three-dimensional arrays. Despite the hundreds of thousands of known minerals, there are rather few possible types of arrangement of atoms in a crystal, defined by crystal structure, crystal system, and point group; for example, there are exactly 14 Bravais lattices for the 7 lattice systems in three-dimensional space.[71]


Cracks are linear openings that form in materials to relieve stress. When an elastic material stretches or shrinks uniformly, it eventually reaches its breaking strength and then fails suddenly in all directions, creating cracks with 120 degree joints, so three cracks meet at a node. Conversely, when an inelastic material fails, straight cracks form to relieve the stress. Further stress in the same direction would then simply open the existing cracks; stress at right angles can create new cracks, at 90 degrees to the old ones. Thus the pattern of cracks indicates whether the material is elastic or not. In a tough fibrous material like oak tree bark, cracks form to relieve stress as usual, but they do not grow long as their growth is interrupted by bundles of strong elastic fibres. Since each species of tree has its own structure at the levels of cell and of molecules, each has its own pattern of splitting in its bark.

Composite patterns: aphids and newly born young in arraylike clusters on sycamore leaf, divided into polygons by veins, which are avoided by the young aphids


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