The Self-Made Tapestry: Pattern Formation in Nature

November 1, 2020
The Self-Made Tapestry: Pattern Formation in Nature

For centuries, scientists have struggled to understand theorigins of the patterns and forms found in nature. Now, in thislucid and accessibly written book, Philip Ball appliesstate-of-the-art scientific understanding from the fields ofbiology, chemistry, geology, physics, and mathematics to theseancient mysteries, revealing how nature's seemingly complexpatterns originate in simple physical laws.Tracing the history of scientific thought about naturalpatterns, Ball shows how common presumptions--for example, thatcomplex form must be guided by some intelligence or that formalways follows function--are erroneous and continue to misleadscientists today. He investigates specific patterns in depth,revealing that these designs are self-organized and that simple,local interactions between component parts produce motifs likespots, stripes, branches, and honeycombs. In the process, heexamines the mysterious phenomenon of symmetry and why itappears--and breaks--in similar ways in different systems. Finally,he attempts to answer this profound question: why are some patternsuniversal? Illustrations throughout the text, many in full color,beautifully illuminate Ball's ideas.Amazon.com ReviewSeashells are often spirals, just like water going down thedrain. There must be a connection, right? Our intuition scoffs atsuch a notion, but maybe they are related, writes Nature editorPhilip Ball in The Self-Made Tapestry: Pattern Formation in Nature.This deep, beautiful exploration of the recurring patterns that wefind both in the living and inanimate worlds will change how youthink about everything from evolution to earthquakes. Not by anymeans a simple book, it is still completely engaging; even theoccasional forays into mathematics and the abstractions ofhydrodynamics are endurable, tucked as they are between Ball'sbright prose and his hundreds of carefully selectedillustrations.When speaking of the living world, Ball seeks to go beyond thetheory of natural selection, which explains why we see certaincharacteristics (height, shape, camouflage), to find mechanismsthat can explain how such characteristics come to be. Again, thisis no easy task, but for those willing to follow his discussion,the elegance of nature is laid out in zebras' stripes, ivy leaves,and butterfly wings. Moving on to find the same patterns at work inthe clouds of Jupiter and the cracks in the San Andreas fault givestrength to the feeling that there are self-composing structuresthat guide everything in the universe toward a kind of order. TheSelf-Made Tapestry is a challenging look at the biggest issues inscience, and well worth a thorough read. --Rob LightnerFrom Publishers WeeklyMost people - including most scientists - take it as a giventhat the appearance of complex patterns implies conscious planningon the part of an intelligent agent or, in the case of suchpatterns in the biological world, the stringent application of theforces of natural selection. Ball (Designing the Molecular World)challenges these assumptions directly, documenting thecounterintuitive idea that the operation of simple physical lawsoften yields complex and beautiful, but wholly natural, patterns.Ball's range is quite impressive. He discusses pattern formation onthe hides of zebras, giraffes and leopards; the creation ofhoneycombs by bees; the uncanny similarities between branchingpatterns in plants and mineral dendrites of magnesium oxide. Ballalso demonstrates how the same physical laws can operate ondramatically different scales: the same pattern of wave propagationhas been found both in newly fertilized frog eggs and in nascentspiral galaxies. Despite fascinating material such as that, Ball'stext is highly technical and often abstruse?so much so that it mayprove inaccessible to most nonscientists?other than thecomprehensible captions on the more than 400 photographs and linedrawings (24 in color), that is, which make this a book that's atleast worthy browsing for general readers.