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Life's Other Secret:
The New Mathematics of the Living World

by Ian Stewart

ISBN 0471158453 / 9780471158455 / 0-471-15845-3
Publisher Wiley
Language English
Edition Hardcover
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Book summary

Is there an underlying set of principles that connects the pattern of a tiger's stripes with the design of a butterfly's wings? Are there hidden laws of life that lie deeper than DNA?

According to award-winning science writer Ian Stewart, the answer is yes, and the hidden rules are called mathematics. In Life's Other Secret, Stewart exploits a realm of pattern and beauty that links the pulse of life with the creative enterprise of mathematics.

Pointing to what he describes as an exaggerated emphasis on the power of DNA in determining the shape and behavior of life-forms, Stewart compares DNA to a recipe book of ingredients, quantities, and sequences: very useful, but far from a complete plan of the final result. Beneath the genes lies the rich texture of the physical universe with its deep patterns, forms, structures, processes, and systemsa world of infinite subtlety that can be described only through mathematics. Genes may move a life-form in a specific direction, but it is the mathematical laws of chemistry and physics that control an organism's response to its genetic instructions.

With the visionary work of the zoologist D'Arcy Thompson as his touchstone, Stewart unfolds a series of dazzling mathematical patterns in the organic world: the ethereal spiral of the nautilus shell, the fluid forms of a jellyfish, the boastful beauty of the peacock's tail, and the amazing numerology of floral petals. He leads us to a place where number and nature coalesce, and where the order of mathematics manifests itself in life.

Life's Other Secret teems with surprising insights. Stewart describes how complexity theory may help explain the origin and evolution of life, and how the Fibonacci number sequence of 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34 seems to rule the number of petals, stamens, and other parts of most plant life. He traces the mathematical patterns of locomotion through the broad range of limbs, wings, muscles, and fins. We learn about hidden mathematical order in flocks of birds, crowds of humans, and in the firing patterns of fireflies. The very nerve cells that relay the perception of these natural phenomena to the brain are most accurately described by mathematical models.

Through this eye-opening tour of an exciting new area of research, we perceive a growing sense of the wonders that will come out of a union of biology and mathematics, a union that will provide a deeper comprehension of the fundamental forces of life.

An invitation to a hidden world

In Life's Other Secret, mathematician and award-winning science writer Ian Stewart reveals the way mathematics describes the origin, structure, and evolution of life. With an abundance of illustrations, many in color, here is an intriguing invitation to enter a world deeper than DNA, a world where number series bloom in the spring and equations gallop across the plains.

"From one of mathematics' most gifted expositors . . . challenging and interesting. . . . Those with no knowledge of the subject will be able to glimpse its beauty and appeal." New Scientist

Praise for Nature's Numbers

"An example of first-rate popular mathematics writing. . . . Stewart achieves what other popular writers merely strive for." Nature [via]