This flower uses maths to reproduce
Numbers and spirals
Imagine you are given one simple task: arrange the seeds of a sunflower so that they maximise available surface area.
How would you even begin to tackle this puzzle? You realise that there is an important condition that needs to be met; the sunflower has to be able to produce this pattern using its already existing biological processes. The plant has to be able to replicate your solution!
This problem is actually quite complex so let’s cheat a little and examine the spiral patterns formed by seeds found on other sunflowers. Upon close inspection, we observe that the number of clockwise and anti-clockwise spirals are usually 34 and 55 respectively. Click on this link if you’re having a hard time visualising it. In larger sunflowers, they can be 55 and 89 or even 89 and 144! Fun fact: the tallest sunflower ever grown was measured 9.17 m.
Finding order in nature
You might be familiar with those particular numbers if you’ve heard of the Fibonacci numbers. It’s a famous mathematical sequence where each number in the sequence is the sum of the two previous numbers. If we start at 1, the sequence goes like this: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377 and so on. While it may seem like an arbitrarily defined sequence of numbers, the Fibonacci sequence is actually quite mathematically complex, and, as we’ve seen with the sunflower, found all throughout nature.
Could you have figured out that the answer is to use Fibonacci numbers? The sunflower found this solution all on its own, taking consecutive numbers in the Fibonacci sequence as the number of spirals in each direction. What’s more is the spirals are separated by an angle of 137.5 degrees, known as the golden angle. Considering its evolutionary history, I’m going to say that the plants figured this one out long before humans did!
Of course, the sunflower developed this particular pattern of spirals due to evolutionary processes, not because it has any mathematical ability (duh). The idea is that sunflowers with the most seeds packed onto its surface area were more likely to reproduce, or, dare I say, multiply. It just so happens that the most efficient way of doing so shares the same pattern as the Fibonacci sequence. However, not all sunflowers get it right with 1 in 5 flowers having the incorrect number of spirals.
Nature speaks the language of mathematics
Plants obeying the laws of mathematics extend far beyond the sunflower. Pictured above is a little-known, peculiar looking plant known as a Romanesco cauliflower. The little protrusions are sometimes called fractals because of their similarity to mathematical fractals. Fractals are structures that can be zoomed in infinitely and still retain some form of symmetry. Most of these look like something that would appear in a psychedelic experience (who says mathematicians don’t have fun?). If you don’t believe me check out a Google image search for fractals. Isn’t it absolutely stunning to find complex mathematical patterns (which humans invented/discovered) in nature?
While there are many, many more beautiful examples of maths in nature that I could share, no number of blog posts could cover them all. Sometimes, it just takes a closer look at nature’s creations to find familiar patterns.