Patterns in Nature : An enigmatic inspiration
A sunflower, symmetry of a microbe, fur of a zebra, flocks of birds, ocean waves. These and thousands of other images are the kaleidoscope of patterns and forms that nature presents to us over a lifetime. Nature has provided artists with inspiration since the beginning of time.
An appreciation of patterns in nature involves both art and science. Some of us enjoy the art and leave the science alone. And a few of us cannot take that hike into the woods or along the beach without absorbing the beauty of the moment and then searching for a new understanding about why things happen as they do. And the rest of us just admire nature and are just baffled beyond explanation to say anything.
The unfathomable degree of complexity :
Taking inspiration from Mother Nature isn’t a bad idea. After all, nature has managed to create a complex self-sustaining system of life supporting millions of species over billions of years. There is a lot we can learn about design from natural systems, and many designers, engineers and thinkers over the last century have found inspiration in nature. From buildings and bridges to machines and medicine, examining the intricacies of the natural system in which we exist has aided in the development of improving almost every aspect of human life. Our relationship with nature’s patterns yields both an infinitely rich display of beautiful things and a manifestation of the underlying order in our world. Enough material for many lifetimes of contemplation and study.
When observed deeply, it becomes quite apparent that the Nature’s design follows certain mathematical aspects. To try and understand how Nature extrapolates its design, mathematics is and has been a great tool which designers and mathematicians like Fibonacci have used since times immemorial. Artists and architects have also used since ancient times many geometrical and mathematical properties : we could take some examples simply by observing the refined use of the proportions by architects from Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome or other Renaissance artists like Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci or Raphael.
Now, these patterns that we see in Nature are not a direct influence of how our human race has evolved since the beginning of time but rather have manifested itself in a enigmatic manner which the human being will probably never be able to comprehend (or might take a few more thousands of years)
The natural world abounds in eye-catching patterns. Consider the synchronized movements of a school of fish gliding through deep ocean waters; or the coordinated turns and swoops of a flock of starlings whirling among tall trees before coming to rest on a telephone wire. How do all the individuals in the school or the flock avoid collisions with their neighbors? How do they orchestrate their graceful movements?
Think of the striking regularity of alternating light and dark stripes on a zebra’s coat, or the scintillating pattern on a sunflower. On a still smaller scale, magnified several hundred times, similar patterns emerge on the surface of a pollen grain.
The living world is filled with striped and mottled patterns of contrasting colors; with sculptural equivalents of those patterns realized as surface crests and troughs; with patterns of organization and behavior even among individual organisms. People have long been tempted to find some obscure “intelligence” behind all these biological patterns.
For some people who come to appreciate this point, it then becomes tempting to attribute such complex patterns and processes to innate behaviors, instincts, or genetic information encoded deep within the chromosomes of the organism. But such “simple explanations” are not likely and, in the best of cases, they merely sweep the question under the carpet. What then is the origin of all this stunning complexity?
The very fabric of Nature has always allured me and kept me swimming in the sea of astonishment. I often wondered how such patterns arose, but never found an explanation. Looking back, I think part of the difficulty was that people didn’t have the tools needed to explore the question. But today, we have highly sophisticated tools and devices which help us understand (to a certain extent) and appreciate the beauty and intricacy of nature.
In the past several decades, however, a rich convergence of insight has come from a wide range of scientific disciplines, including biology, chemistry, computer science, mathematics, and physics. Out of that mix the field of complex systems emerged. I consider myself extremely lucky to be living in this generation to be given a chance to witness such a magnificent advancement in science and research. To understand them, the dynamic and often remarkably complex interactions among the subunits must be taken into account. One has to see rather than just look to notice the amount of attention that has been given to the smallest of details.
Now you may start to ponder on how this pattern exists in all life forms and who initiated such a brilliant design. As far as I can understand, Randomness does not exist in nature. What we assume is random seems to be a cleverly choreographed play that takes a lot of time to understand. Although, I cannot fully explain how these patterns have manifested in nature, I can help you appreciate the beauty in these patterns and motivate you to look deeper into the realms of nature and get inspired from it.
Getting inspired from Nature:
Observation of nature can give many insights in the form of practical wisdom and understanding patterns of events and forms in order to embody them in design. From a careful observation of the functioning of biological ecosystems we can learn wisdom for an alternative way of how to inculcate the patterns in our design. Asking questions such as: “what are their characteristics, what are the forms and structures, relationships?”, allows design to be based on patterns in nature.
The opalescent feathers of a hummingbird, the bold texture of a zebra’s stripes or the fine intricacies of a fern all provide ideas for the looking designer. A stained glass artisan would certainly be inspired by the beautiful colors of the feathers, as would a fashion and textile designer towards the zebra and fern textures. Everyone may get something different from each of these patters, but the fact remains that these creations are all around us if we take the time to notice them. And if we let our imagination wander they will indeed inspire us.
This is not a simple task, as it must be remembered that there is no clear line to be drawn between nature and human centered design. One has to start developing an empathy with natural processes, rather than an arrogant conviction that one understands the whole of an objectified nature. It is about an attempt to observe without judgment and to feel with all of the senses.
In contemplation of patterns, we find more refined, profound, or subtle insights into good procedures. One of the ways in which we can learn from nature is through the understanding of patterns and forms.
The geometry of Fractals brings us a new appreciation for the natural world and the patterns we observe in it. The nautilus is one of the most famous examples of a fractal in nature. The perfect pattern is called a Fibonacci spiral. Approximate fractals are easily found in nature. These objects display self-similar structure over an extended, but finite, scale range.
Examples include clouds, river networks, fault lines, mountain ranges, craters, snow flakes, crystals, lightning, cauliflower or broccoli, and systems of blood vessels and pulmonary vessels, and ocean waves. Coastlines may be loosely considered fractal in nature.
“Fractals are not just artificial constructs, they shape us and the world we live in.’ (Gleick, 1987).
An understanding of the form of a fractal structure has many implications for design. It is worth asking what happens if you take these forms and push them, using them as an analogy for design, as opposed to drawing straight lines. The edge of a fractal allows a dense packing of space and a large surface area between systems.
Here is a beautiful short clip on the Fibonacci series and how we can relate it to Nature’s wonderful designs:
The word pattern can be a slippery one. It has a multiplicity of meanings, from a shape, to blueprint, to structure, thread of development or repetition, or a concept. This implies that there are simple patterns which are repeated in nature to more complex ones that manifest itself in the largest to the smallest organisms. Many different structures develop from these patterns due to different evolutions and conditions in place, however there is a deep underlying similarity between the forms produced .
This can be seen as analogous to the creation of fractals in chaos theory, where a simple equation is applied over and over and produces different, but self-similar patterns each time. A complex pattern is built up of the interaction of simple parts.
“Each pattern describes a problem which occurs over and over again and again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem, in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over, without ever doing it the same way twice.” (Alexander, 1977)
Observation and the Process of Design:
A creative process of design should involve an increasing depth of experience and perception. Patterns in nature should not be seen as a static blueprint for design. We should understand what to look at, then how to look and how to go about making changes. Careful observation and making small changes which allow regeneration to occur allows us to learn to follow a process of design and not a set of rules.
Design springs from observation without judgment. Action is prefaced by wide-eyed observation and an attempt to understand the processes at work in shaping our work. We need to open all our senses to a wide array of imagination to be able to create designs that resonate with nature. Design should be a fluid process, as it is impossible to take all variables into account in one go.
Here are a few brilliant examples of patterns in nature : (click for a larger view)
1) Nautilus Sea Shell
2) Pattern on the Zebra’s skin
3) Fractal pattern on a Broccoli
4) Giant Lobelia
5) Antelope Canyon, Arizona
6) Dallol Volcano, Ethiopia
7) Arizona Canyon Mud
8) Swirling Aurora
9) Aurora Borealis, Churchill, Canada
10) Salt Piles on Shoreline, Senegal
12) Curled Millipede
13) Basket Sea Star, Cuba
14) Dendrite Snowflake
15) Star trails radiate in the sky above trees in the Salmon River wilderness of Idaho
16) Puffer Fish Eye
17) Bright feathers
18) Scales on a Boa snake
19) Cactus flower
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