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Nature by numbers: The hidden beauty of mathematics

Living with a mathematician this year has made me realise the unsung contribution mathematics makes when it comes to providing us with the reasoning to better appreciate the beauty of nature. I’d always thought fractal symmetry, which cropped up in my physical chemistry lectures, was solely a chemical concept. You can probably imagine my surprise when I realised that this characteristic actually stemmed from mathematics. It came as an even greater shock to discover that many natural phenomena are, in fact, fractal to some degree. The Fibonacci sequence, which you may think exists only in the pages of a Dan Brown novel, is also visible in some of nature’s most exquisite structures. So, just how many of us are aware of the way in which mathematics provides us with the reasoning to be able to praise the intrinsic beauty of nature? This is exactly what I hope to achieve in this article; to show you how mathematics, something some of us may have dreaded at school, actually explains a lot of the things we see around us.

Fractal symmetry is when the same pattern is seen at increasingly small scales. In fractal symmetry, you find the same pattern within the pattern, which is why this can also be referred to as self-similarity. The best example to think of is a tree. The trunk of a tree separates into branches which then separate into smaller branches and then twigs, and these get smaller and smaller. In this way, we see a repetition. Another example is the Romanesco broccoli, but my favourite would have to be the Lotus effect. The Lotus leaves have a rough surface with micro- and nano-structures including waxy crystals that contribute to making the surface superhydrophobic. This means that any water droplets on the lotus leaves are strongly repelled and slide off the surface. While doing so, they take up the dust particles from the leaves in order to reduce the surface tension, resulting in the cleaning of the lotus leaves. This is an example of self-cleaning in nature and it is the fractal symmetry of the waxy crystals on the surface of the leaves that provides the enhanced hydrophobicity which makes this possible.

Fractal symmetry is when the same pattern is seen at increasingly small scales. In fractal symmetry, you find the same pattern within the pattern, which is why this can also be referred to as self-similarity

Another type of symmetry I wish to discuss is the so-called wallpaper symmetry. This is the mathematical classification of a two-dimensional repetitive pattern inspired by honeycomb structures. Besides often being seen in architecture and other arts such as textiles, this structure has found great use in the field of chemical catalysis. One of the finest examples of the use of catalysis is in catalytic converters used to turn pollutant gases such as nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxides into nitrogen dioxide and carbon dioxide gases, which are safer alternatives. The support for the precious rhodium or platinum metal catalysts used is cordierite monolith. The metal is dispersed on the honeycomb structure of the support which provides a larger surface area to optimise the flow of gases over the catalyst. This is a fine example of symmetry observed in nature that has now been employed on a large industrial scale and is something used by many of us every day.

Fractal and wallpaper symmetry are the two types I wanted to discuss. However, this article would be incomplete without a nod to the spirals that are too often seen in nature. Some of these spirals arise due to the golden ratio of 1.618[…] which is the most irrational number we can get. Put simply, it is the furthest away we can be from a fraction. In this way, the golden ratio gives the best spiral with no gaps. Hence, flower petals and pinecones are guided by the golden ratio, which is related to the Fibonacci sequence. In the Fibonacci sequence, each number is the sum of the two numbers preceding it. What we find is that if we take the ratio of any two numbers from the Fibonacci sequence, we get values very close to the golden ratio. In nature, the flowers and the shells are not genetically, or in any other way, programmed to abide by the mathematics of the Fibonacci sequence. This is purely a result of evolutionary design. Petals and seeds find that the golden ratio offers the best packing with minimum gaps. I find it absolutely amazing that a series of numbers on a piece of paper can explain why many elements in nature have chosen to adopt this particular configuration.

This article would be incomplete without a nod to the spirals that are too often seen in nature. Some of these spirals arise due to the golden ratio of 1.618[…] which is the most irrational number we can get

In addition to mathematics, you could not have avoided noticing the not-so-subtle mention of chemistry in this article. As I researched more into maths, I could easily find myself making connections with chemistry and much of the material I have studied to date. Thinking back to one of the conversations I’ve had with my flatmates in the kitchen, it’s clear that mathematics provides the key to untie the knots in many fields both within and outside STEM. As a chemist, I certainly see how fundamental a role mathematics plays. In this article, I hope I have enabled you to at least begin to appreciate just how much a bunch of numbers can explain to us about the universe.

 

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