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Maths in Nature

An Introduction

The concept of ‘Maths in Nature’ is as innate as a person

taking his first breath. Most would agree that our
conception of maths in its basic form has been derived as a
means to describe aspects of our environment as an element
of a much larger sociological agreement. So to say that
“maths exists in nature” is as redundant a statement as
saying that humans themselves exist in nature. However in
researching this topic one can not help but marvel at how
well ‘mathematics’ corresponds with the grand scheme of
things and ultimately makes one wonder what came first; an
issue of the chicken or the egg as it were.

Whatever the case, we can rationalize that maths in nature

is factual in its tangibility. It is this outstanding quality that
makes the use of maths in nature a tremendous resource for
the classroom. Too often we force mathematical concepts on
the basis of blind faith, while examples such as these are
quite literally all around us. Demonstrating maths in nature
is an ideal approach for illustrating what many students will
regard as arbitrary information and should be utilized by all
teachers as a tool to increase learner interest. When maths is
witnessed in its purest form the realization can be truly
amazing. Sometimes the application of mathematics can
seem to be separate from the natural world but in actual
fact when we take the time, math can be seen all around us.
The majority of our knowledge of mathematics and modern
science is strictly based and supported on our observations
of our environment. What was once seen as the randomness
of nature is now distinguished as the intricate applications of
mathematics and illustrates the complexities of our natural

Many mathematical principles are based on ideals, and

apply to an abstract, perfect world. This perfect world of
mathematics is reflected in the imperfect physical world,
such as in the approximate symmetry of a face divided by an
axis along the nose. More symmetrical faces are generally
regarded as more aesthetically pleasing.

Five axes of symmetry are traced on the petals of this

flower, from each dark purple line on the petal to an
imaginary line bisecting the angle between the opposing
purple lines. The lines also trace the shape of a star.

Man is naturally attracted to symmetry. Very often we

consider a face beautiful when the features are symmetrically

Symmetrical forms can be found in the inanimate world as

well. The planets, with slight variation due to chance, exhibit
radial symmetry. Snowflakes also provide an example of radial
symmetry. All snowflakes show a hexagonal symmetry around
an axis that runs perpendicular to their face. Every one sixth of
a revolution around this axis produces a design identical to the
original. The fact that all snowflakes have this sort of
symmetry is due to the way water molecules arrange
themselves when ice forms. It's a reminder that symmetry is
part of the structure of the world around us.


• Perfect
Earth is the perfect shape for minimizing the pull of
gravity on its outer edges - a sphere (although
centrifugal force from its spin actually makes it an
oblate spheroid, flattened at top and bottom).
Geometry is the branch of maths that describes such

• Polyhedra

For a beehive, close packing is important to maximize the

use of space. Hexagons fit most closely together without
any gaps; so hexagonal wax cells are what bees create to
store their eggs and larvae. Hexagons are six-sided
polygons, closed, 2-dimensional, many-sided figures with
straight edges.

• Cones

Volcanoes form cones, the steepness and height of

which depends on the runniness (viscosity) of the lava.
Fast, runny lava forms flatter cones; thick, viscous lava
forms steep-sided cones. Cones are 3-dimensional solids
whose volume can be calculated by 1/3 x area of base x

Parallel lines

In mathematics, parallel lines stretch to infinity, neither

converging nor diverging. These parallel dunes in the
Australian desert aren't perfect - the physical world
rarely is.

Geometry - Human induced

People impose their own geometry on the land, dividing a

random environment into squares, rectangles and
bisected rhomboids, and impinging on the natural
diversity of the environment.


Any circle, even the disc of the Sun as viewed from

Cappadoccia, central Turkey during the 2006 total
eclipse, holds that perfect relationship where the
circumference divided by the diameter equals pi. First
devised (inaccurately) by the Egyptians and Babylonians,
the infinite decimal places of pi (approximately
3.1415926...) have been calculated to billions of decimal


Many natural objects, such as frost on the branches of a

tree, show the relationship where similarity holds at
smaller and smaller scales. This fractal nature mimics
mathematical fractal shapes where form is repeated at
every scale. Fractals, such as the famous Mandelbrot set,
cannot be represented by classical geometry.
Occurring Fractals
(including plants, rivers, galaxies, clouds, weather, population
patterns, stocks, video feedback, crystal growth, etc.)

The geometry of Fractals brings us a new appreciation for

the natural world and the patterns we observe in it.
Many things previously called chaos are now known to follow
subtle subtle fractal laws of behavior. So many things turned
out to be fractal that the word "chaos" itself (in operational
science) had redefined, or actually for the First time Formally
Defined as following inherently unpredictable yet generally
deterministic rules based on nonlinear iterative
equations. Fractals are unpredictable in specific details yet
deterministic when viewed as a total pattern - in many ways
this reflects what we observe in the small details & total
pattern of life in all its physical and mental varieties.

Zero - Placeholder and Number

Zero is one of the most important mathematical concepts.

The idea of zero as a placeholder, eg to distinguish 303
from 33, developed in both Indian and Babylonian
cultures. Three Indian mathematicians, Brahmagupta
(about 628 AD), Mahavira (about 850 AD) and Bháskara
(1114- about 1185 AD), are credited with defining zero as
a number, and defining the rules for subtracting, adding,
multiplying and dividing by zero.

Golden ratio (phi)

The ratio of consecutive numbers in the Fibonacci

sequence approaches a number known as the golden
ratio, or phi (=1.618033989...). The aesthetically appealing
ratio is found in much human architecture and plant life.
A Golden Spiral formed in a manner similar to the
Fibonacci spiral can be found by tracing the seeds of a
sunflower from the centre outwards.

Geometric sequence

Bacteria such as Shewanella oneidensis multiply by

doubling their population in size after as little as 40
minutes. A geometric sequence such as this, where each
number is double the previous number [or f(n+1) = 2 f(n)]
produces a rapid increase in the population in a very
short time
Uniqueness, proofs

Proofs are the tools used to find the rules that define
maths. One such proof is by counter example - find one
duplicated snowflake, like Nancy Knight of the US
National Center for Atmospheric Research did while
studying cloud climatology, and the theory of snowflake
uniqueness disappears into the clouds. The theory may
have originated from Wilson Bentley's extraordinary feat
photographing over 5000 snowflakes in the 1930s. He
found no two alike.


Is one infinity bigger than another infinity? The size of all

natural numbers, 1,2,3..., etc., is infinite. The set of all
numbers between one and zero is also infinite - is one
infinite set larger than the other? The deep questions of
maths can leave you feeling very small in a vast universe.

Fibonacci sequence

Rabbits, rabbits, rabbits. Leonardo Fibonacci was a well-

travelled Italian who introduced the concept of zero and
the Hindu-Arabic numeral system to Europe in 1200AD.
He also described the Fibonacci sequence of numbers
using an idealised breeding population of rabbits. Each
rabbit pair produces another pair every month, taking
one month first to mature, and giving the sequence
0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13,... Each number in the sequence is the sum
of the previous two.

Fibonacci spiral
If you construct a series of squares with lengths equal to
the Fibonacci numbers (1,1,2,3,5, etc) and trace a line
through the diagonals of each square, it forms a
Fibonacci spiral. Many examples of the Fibonacci spiral
can be seen in nature, including in the chambers of a
nautilus shell.