Mushroom Coral by Wolcott Henry

The Prettiness of Patterns

Nature has many hidden secrets, many of them not as hidden as they seem. One just needs to look closely and observe with focused attention. Whether it is the tiny elements on a leaf or repeating forms of mighty mountains, the Earth has some amazing, visually stunning patterns. Patterns are especially pleasing to the human eye because they signify a sense of order and exude familiarity.

The Science behind Patterns

Pattern formation is governed by natural laws of biology, physics, chemistry, etc. as the elements interact with each other. Our natural world is nothing but a bunch of chemicals floating around in space. These elements interact with one another in ways to create differences from one bit of space to the next. This is the genesis of a natural pattern.

A Fascination Since History

It is not just in recent times, that man started observing patterns. Ingenious nature-observers such as the early Greek philosophers studied patterns, the likes of PlatoPythagoras and Empedocles had attempted to explain order in nature with their theoretical inventions. In fact, many human-developed theories have found their origin in nature. For example, Leonardo Fibonacci, inventor of the famous Fibonacci series initially backed his theory to explain the growth in numbers of a theoretical rabbit population. Plato commented on the growth of “universals”, which he elevated to the status of ideal forms. Another great philosopher,  Adolf Zeising proclaimed that the “Golden Ratio” was expressed in the arrangement of plant parts. All this research shows how man has ever since been fascinated with patterns, since times immemorable.

An Appreciative Eye

What is interesting is that these visual structures and forms have been the muse of not only esteemed scientists and thinkers but have awed the common man alike. From revelling in the joy of the spiral of a pinecone to finding amusement in the curl of a chameleon’s tail- the opportunities to be thrilled are many. Yet, we have somehow lost the art of taking a momentary pause to appreciate the detail. When was the last time you took a step back to observe the leaf patterns during your morning walk? Rather, you just hurried along to complete your designated kilometres, with eyes straight ahead and never wavering a bit. It is this very haste and urgency to “get done” with things that make us miss out on the small joys around us and in nature- one such joy being patterned!

Spiral patterns

Spiral patterns on leaf

Know What to Look for

To truly enjoy nature, you must understand that everything in nature happens for a reason- for survival. Patterns are pretty for sure, but they are just not pretty placements to please the human eye! Here is how some of the main types of patterns help the cause of survival.

  • Symmetry patterns: Bilateral symmetry, such as that seen in orchids is very common. Radial symmetry is seen in sea anemones with all “petals” arranged around a radial axis. Symmetry is a great defence mechanism. For example, sea anemones cannot move, so they must remain aware of any danger (or food) coming from any side. Symmetrical arrangements thus enhance life effectiveness in different ways.
  • Fractal patterns: Fractals are self-similar patterns that repeat iteratively as you fragment the scene. The next time you come across a fern in the rainy season, make sure you see how the leave-patterns repeat from larger to tiniest. Trees too exhibit fractals, with the spread of the branches narrowing out to similarly shaped leaf-bunches and then individual leaves.
  • Spiral patterns: Spirals are often seen in nature- the shell of a snail, the arrangement of leaves on a plant stem etc. What makes this form so desirable? From a physics point of view, a spiral form has amongst the lowest-energy configurations. It also gives leaves an ideal “spread”- leaves arranged on a spiral axis favour natural selection by maximising access to resources (especially sunlight).
  • Chaos, flow and meanders: You must have heard of the term “meandering river”, these sinuous bends are actually a recognized pattern often seen in floodplains as meander scars. Chaos is another pattern-system, used to signify a system that is highly sensitive to initial conditions, such as a vortex street of clouds.
    Danakil Desert, Ethiopia by Carsten Peter

    Danakil Desert, Ethiopia by Carsten Peter

  • Waves and dunes: One would seldom think of waves as a pattern, but isn’t the soothing effect due to the rise and fall of the sea? In fact, waves originate as disturbances that carry energy across time and space, thereby dissipating energy.
  • Tessellations: This is a pattern with repeating tiles all over a flat surface. For example, the cells of a honeycomb. Even the scales arranged on the body of a pangolin or a snake replicate this pattern.
  • Spots and Stripes: Some patterns like the spots of a ladybird or the stripes of a tiger are used for camouflage purposes i.e. to increase survival chances.
    Strip Pattern (Photo by Swapan Banik)_The Prettiness of Patterns

    Strip Pattern (Photo by Swapan Banik)

These are only some of the fascinating forms that you need to actively look out for when spending time in nature. Or maybe it is the other way round- you spot a captivating pattern and then get on the lookout to find out all about it!

A Scientific Take on Patterns

Did you know that many of these natural patterns are being modelled mathematically? For example, we have already spoken of the problem statement put forth by Leonardo Fibonacci, to give way to the Fibonacci series which is widely used in Mathematics. ”How many pairs of rabbits will be produced in a year, beginning with a single pair, if in every month each pair bears a new pair which becomes productive from the second month on?” Another mathematical model is that of the irrational number PHI (and not Pi), called the divine proportion, golden mean, or golden section. It further leads to the concept of the Golden Rectangle, which is said to be the rectangle shape which is most pleasing to the human eye. In fact, some say that the famous Mona Lisa is so mesmerizing because it incorporates elements of the Golden Rectangle. Probably true. Now, that’s one of the world-famous examples where man has taken a leaf out of nature (not literally) and created beauty using patterns.

Clearly, we humans continue to draw inspiration from nature in more ways than one! Imitating patterns and learning from patterns seems like one such picture-perfect way to replicate the beauty of life. So, the next time you go on a nature-hike or walk, be sure to keep your eyes wide open and look for these minute muses! Who knows, patterns may be your muse for life!

Cover Photo: Mushroom Coral by Wolcott Henry

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About the Author /

Rhucha Kulkarni Currently a travel entrepreneur, writer, photographer and earlier an HR professional, Rhucha is an avid nature lover at heart.

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