9780198502432 / 0198502435

The Self-Made Tapestry: Pattern Formation in Nature


Publisher:Oxford University Press, USA



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About the book:

The patterns of nature have fascinated humans for millennia. From spirals carved into rock during Neolithic times to the sand patterns of "executive" toys, we respond to and often replicate the underlying "order" of nature. The mathematical regularity of logarithmic spiral patterns in plant growth, such as seen in the florets of sunflowers and cauliflowers, was first characterised in 1202 by the Italian, Leonardo of Pisa, nicknamed Fibonacci. Since then technological and mathematical advances have allowed us to see patterning on all scales from spiral galaxies to vortices, waves and turbulence in the atmosphere and oceans and down into the packing of atoms and Mandelbrot fractal patterns of growth in all sorts of materials. So close do the worlds of the organic and inorganic become that they can be hard to tell apart. As Philip Ball asks: "Surely we can...tell a crystal from a living creature, an insect from a rock?"

British science writer Philip Ball joins an illustrious band of scientists and writers who have been stimulated to try and make sense of all this patterning which surrounds us. He particularly follows in the footsteps of D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, whose 1917 book On Growth and Form has been enormously influential. Generations of scientists have been inspired to look more closely at the relationships between organisms and the way they use materials for constructing their skeletons and homes from individual shells to whole cities. Equally, artists have been reminded to look again at nature, just as their Renaissance forbears, such as Leonardo Da Vinci, did. Modern architects looked again at the logarithmic spiral and the Golden Section derived from it, as did the superlative architects of classical Greece, to proportion their buildings.

Thompson's classic work is a particularly hard "act" to follow but Ball acquits himself very well. From his position as an editor at premier science journal Nature, Ball is particularly well placed to survey the enormous range of contemporary scientific investigation which reveals the extraordinary extent of nature's patterning. Using a wealth of illustration, Ball attempts to go beyond the niceties of a host of attractive examples, in order to "map many of nature's tapestries into some universal blueprints, in which the specifics cease to matter". The physics, mathematics and chemistry are well handled for the lay reader. A good bibliography, index and "home experiments" (not for the uninitiated) help those who want to explore further. After reading this book you will find yourself looking anew at cracked windows, fingerprints, dissolving coffee grains, boiling water, leaf veins... --Douglas Palmer

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