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  • Writer's pictureDr. Minna Allarakhia

Learning from Nature's (Mathematical) Order

Updated: Mar 6

What is the interaction between nature and human beings? Nature and humans depend on each other. Think about different ways in which nature and humans interact with each other. What is the role of honeybees in our food production? What role do insects play in our ecosystems? What about the evolutionary role of microorganisms?

The Mathematical Order in Nature Nature likes order, and balance. The patterns that we see in nature, have long fascinated scientists and mathematicians, who have all tried to understand the reason behind the order in nature. Take for example the sunflower. If you look closely, the pattern of seeds within a sunflower, follows the Fibonacci sequence: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144. Do you remember this pattern from math class? What is the point of this pattern, aside from teaching us math? Conduct some research to understand why the pattern of seeds is called a fractal. Interestingly, plants have different ways of organizing themselves, in order to optimize their design and use of resources.

Pinecones are simple, yet when you look at them, they are more complicated. There is much more to the pinecones, just like the sunflowers. When you look at pinecones, what patterns do you see? Count the number of spirals in either direction. You will notice that the number of spirals in either direction is also a Fibonacci number.

How about butterflies? If you look carefully, you will notice more patterns on the butterfly's wings. Butterflies have patterns on one side of their wings, that are different from the patterns found on the other side. Both types of patterns have a function, to allow butterflies to thrive, and survive in nature.

Leaves also have particular orders in which they attach themselves to stems and branches. There's also the pattern of the veins found on the surface of the leaves. This pattern is called the venation pattern.

We all know that no two snowflakes are alike. But mathematicians love snowflakes because they are symmetrical and hexagonal in structure. There seems to be a lot of math in nature. Nature, order, math. A worthwhile topic to research further.

Animals also have patterns. The adult ocellated lizard, has a pattern that is connected to the individual scales. The lizard’s back changes colour after seeing the colour of neighbouring scales. Looks like there is a mathematical process here as well, and likely the lizard is using color to blend into its environment.

Did you know you can identify a spider by the web it creates? Spiders spin their webs in different patterns. There's the orb web, the cobweb, tubular web, sheet web, and funnel web. By looking at the shape and structure, you can begin to identify the type of spider that built the webs you see around you.

Some patterns can confuse observers. Take for example, the Zebra. The zebra’s stripes confuse predators and other pests, keeping these animals or pests, fixated on the patterns, rather than on the Zebra. This might give the Zebra just enough time to escape from predators, and keep other pests from landing on the Zebra.

The seashell shows off its spectacular spiral. There are so many different types of spiral shapes. Look up the golden ratio, and see how the seashell is an example of this mathematical principle. Why does nature use this curious ratio?

Assignment 11: Nature Inspires Innovation How can nature’s order inspire new ideas? The objective is to understand the benefits from nature’s order, and the impact on the collective ecosystem, when positive nature-human interactions are disrupted.

Disrupting Nature's Order and Patterns Students should first explore ways in which humans have copied nature's order and then assess sources of disruption of nature's order, for example, through direct human activity and/or climate change. Students can present their findings using an ecosystem, or a systems map. Place these maps on the wall, allowing students to collectively analyze the disruptors, and impact across ecosystems.

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