Branches: Nature's Patterns: A Tapestry in Three Parts

Branches: Nature's Patterns: A Tapestry in Three Parts

Philip Ball

Language: English

Pages: 240

ISBN: 0199604886

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

As part of a trilogy of books exploring the science of patterns in nature, acclaimed science writer Philip Ball here looks at the form and growth of branching networks in the natural world, and what we can learn from them.

Many patterns in nature show a branching form - trees, river deltas, blood vessels, lightning, the cracks that form in the glazing of pots. These networks share a peculiar geometry, finding a compromise between disorder and determinism, though some, like the hexagonal snowflake or the stones of the Devil's Causeway fall into a rigidly ordered structure. Branching networks are found at every level in biology - from the single cell to the ecosystem. Human-made networks too can come to share the same features, and if they don't, then it might be profitable to make them do so: nature's patterns tend to arise from economical solutions.

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reduced to almost nothing; if the string were infinitely thin, it would be truly one-dimensional. Likewise, a sheet of paper extends in two dimensions but has negligible extent in the third (the thickness)—it is more or less a two-dimensional object. But a DLA cluster is neither like a piece of string nor like a sheet of paper: it is neither one-dimensional nor two-dimensional, but 1.71-dimensional. What does that mean? We will look into this question later, but for now it will suffice to say

fitness of the mutants—although whether the new pattern was a cause of this or an incidental side-effect was not clear. Fig. 2.18: A mutant colony with a new growth pattern sprouting from a dense cluster of Bacillus subtilis. (Photo: Eshel Ben-Jacob.) This process supplied a variety of new forms. When a mutant colony emerged, the researchers would breed its cells to obtain a new strain of Bacillus with new pattern-forming behaviour. Some of the mutant patterns were familiar: dense-branching

‘decode the mess’ by considering how generic defect structures arise from characteristic deformations of the underlying pattern (Book II, Chapter 3). In attempting this, scientists may often draw on a rich existing theory of defect formation developed from studies of crystals and related materials, such as liquid crystals. The principles I have adduced so far apply to ‘infinite’ systems, by which I mean ones for which we ignore the boundaries. But of course no real pattern-forming system is

showed how the laws of thermodynamics governing the properties of heat and matter could be understood by considering the behaviour of individual atoms and molecules as they jiggle and collide. This discipline became known as statistical mechanics, since it drew on the average behaviours in the molecular melèe. Boltzmann showed what entropy really means at this microscopic scale: it is a measure of the different ways molecules can be arranged. In the 1940s an American engineer named Claude Shannon

detail (Fig. 1.16b). Gravner and Griffeath think that this might be because there are in fact only a relatively small number of stable side-branching designs: the choices the flake has are by no means limitless. Fig. 1.16: Snowflakes grown in a model developed by Janko Gravner and David Griffeath are remarkably realistic (a). Here the branches are forced to be identical, but when that condition is relaxed by an injection of randomness, the branches still look rather similar (b). (Images: Janko

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