Sewing Machine embroidery

Patterns in nature

Patterns in nature are visible regularities of form found in the natural world. These patterns recur in different contexts and can sometimes be modelled mathematically. Natural patterns include symmetries, trees, spirals, meanders, waves, foams, tessellations, cracks and stripes. Early Greek philosophers studied pattern, with Plato, Pythagoras and Empedocles attempting to explain order in nature. The modern understanding of visible patterns developed gradually over time.

The Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau (18011883) formulated the mathematical problem of the existence of a minimal surface with a given boundary, which is now named after him. He studied soap films intensively, formulating Plateau's laws which describe the structures formed by films in foams.

The laws of physics apply the abstractions of mathematics to the real world, often as if it were perfect. For example, a crystal is perfect when it has no structural defects such as dislocations and is fully symmetric. Exact mathematical perfection can only approximate real objects. Visible patterns in nature are governed by physical laws; for example, meanders can be explained using fluid dynamics.

Among non-living things, snowflakes have striking sixfold symmetry; each flake's structure forms a record of the varying conditions during its crystallization, with nearly the same pattern of growth on each of its six arms. Crystals in general have a variety of symmetries and crystal habits; they can be cubic or octahedral, but true crystals cannot have fivefold symmetry (unlike quasicrystals). Rotational symmetry is found at different scales among non-living things, including the crown-shaped splash pattern formed when a drop falls into a pond, and both the spheroidal shape and rings of a planet like Saturn.

From the point of view of physics, spirals are lowest-energy configurations which emerge spontaneously through self-organizing processes in dynamic systems. From the point of view of chemistry, a spiral can be generated by a reaction-diffusion process, involving both activation and inhibition. Phyllotaxis is controlled by proteins that manipulate the concentration of the plant hormone auxin, which activates meristem growth, alongside other mechanisms to control the relative angle of buds around the stem. From a biological perspective, arranging leaves as far apart as possible in any given space is favoured by natural selection as it maximises access to resources, especially sunlight for photosynthesis.

Vortex streets are zigzagging patterns of whirling vortices created by the unsteady separation of flow of a fluid, most often air or water, over obstructing objects. Smooth (laminar) flow starts to break up when the size of the obstruction or the velocity of the flow become large enough compared to the viscosity of the fluid.

Waves are disturbances that carry energy as they move. Mechanical waves propagate through a medium air or water, making it oscillate as they pass by. Wind waves are sea surface waves that create the characteristic chaotic pattern of any large body of water, though their statistical behaviour can be predicted with wind wave models. As waves in water or wind pass over sand, they create patterns of ripples. When winds blow over large bodies of sand, they create dunes, sometimes in extensive dune fields as in the Taklamakan desert. Dunes may form a range of patterns including crescents, very long straight lines, stars, domes, parabolas, and longitudinal or seif ('sword') shapes.

Leopards and ladybirds are spotted; angelfish and zebras are striped. These patterns have an evolutionary explanation: they have functions which increase the chances that the offspring of the patterned animal will survive to reproduce. One function of animal patterns is camouflage; for instance, a leopard that is harder to see catches more prey. Another function is signalling for instance, a ladybird is less likely to be attacked by predatory birds that hunt by sight, if it has bold warning colours, and is also distastefully bitter or poisonous, or mimics other distasteful insects. A young bird may see a warning patterned insect like a ladybird and try to eat it, but it will only do this once; very soon it will spit out the bitter insect; the other ladybirds in the area will remain undisturbed. The young leopards and ladybirds, inheriting genes that somehow create spottedness, survive. But while these evolutionary and functional arguments explain why these animals need their patterns, they do not explain how the patterns are formed.