Philip Ball, who has written about everything from music to molecules, normally doesn’t care to revisit his subjects. But he’s come back to the natural world’s visual repetitions over the past 15 years, most recently with Patterns in Nature, which Publisher’s Weekly calls the “most beautiful book of 2016.” (So far, at least.)
His photo-rich book will likely change how you look at a snail’s shell, a leaf with dew drops on it, or really anything else that nature places in your sightline, including your own fingertips. Here, Ball shares what he’s observed in more than 15 years of examining the science behind nature’s beauty.—Christina Nunez
Finding pure mathematics in a sunflower
There’s an awful lot of interesting math in [nature’s patterns]—for example, in the so-called Fibonacci patterns that you see on the heads of sunflowers. This has fascinated mathematicians for a long time, just as it’s fascinated botanists for a long time. What on earth is this pure math doing in nature? That’s one of the reasons that mathematicians are drawn to this.
You also find literally the same math describing very different systems. You can describe the formation of patterns on animal skins in terms of mathematical equations. You can also use those equations to understand dynamics of populations of predators and their prey, how the size of the different populations goes up and down, and how that depends on the populations are spread through a territory. [It’s] basically a math about how things reproduce and how things spread out, those are the key processes that are going on in both of those cases. (Launch the full gallery of photos from the book.)
How scientists began to crack the code
From the 1970s to the 1990s, you could argue that this field was cracked [open]. It was really only then that we had the conceptual tools, a lot of which came out of physics, but also the computational tools. You could start modeling these things on computers in very detailed ways. We only then had the tools to really understand questions that scientists of all description had been grappling with for hundreds of years, if not thousands of years—the Greeks were fascinated by them.
Nature just throws out all these beautiful variations on a theme. There’s something astonishing in that.
Alan Turing saw it early on
We’re now understanding that the mechanisms [for patterns] seem to operate in biochemical systems. Ultimately the rules have to be genetically encoded. You see them in the wrinkles on your fingertips, you see them probably in the pattern of hair follicles on the back of your hand. They’re fairly evenly spaced apart, even though they’re not perfectly regular. You see them in the grooves on the upper part of a dog’s palate. All of these systems are ones that biologists over the past 10 years or so have got to grips with.
These are called reaction diffusion systems, and the way that they can form patterns was first really explored by the mathematician Alan Turing in the 1950s. He wrote a seminal paper on this subject that was way before its time. It wasn’t really until the 1970s, and particularly the 1980s and ‘90s, that people started to understand the basis of what Turing at laid out and define systems where it really did seem to apply.
What we have in common with ice
Living systems are highly patterned. That’s how you get from a single, pretty much spherically symmetrical cell to this complex organism that’s us, or that’s a fly or that’s a flower. That is a patterning process. So it’s literally true that the formation of these patterns has complete relevance to how life sustains itself—and quite probably to how life appeared in the first place.
The fact that those same mechanisms are working in non-living systems, there is something poetic and beautiful in that. It’s a kind of unifying principle. You can intuit that most clearly with snowflakes: They have this incredible intricacy far beyond what seems reasonable for a bit of ice forming in air to acquire. We understand now how that process works, but I think all the same it’s proper for us to continue to see that with some wonder.
Nature’s inherent creativity
I’d argue that there’s a real sense in which we can see nature as being creative there. That it has a patterning mechanism but it produces these endless variations without any effort it seems on nature’s part, just throws out all these beautiful variations on this theme. There’s something astonishing in that.
Comments have been edited for length and clarity.