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Archive for March, 2012

I have been distracted again. Sorry. I will keep my promise to write about the ripple effect of the beauty buzz, but first I have a discovery to share with you. Actually, I did not make the discovery myself but one of my bushwalking friends, Cecilia Goon, deserves the credit.

And this is it –

– not the Pouched Coral-fern (Gleichenia dicarpa) itself,  but the hexagon formed by its branching fronds. As I said in my last post, the hexagon is one of Nature’s most structurally efficient and aesthetically pleasing shapes.

For the Pouched Coral-fern to produce this shape, each pair of new fronds has to form an angle of 120 degrees. As you can see, the plants manage this with amazing, if not quite perfect, precision.

I have not found an explanation for why coral ferns grow this way but I noticed that when you look down on the leaves, you can see that each hexagonal array provides partial shelter for the layers below. The result is a protective canopy – a bit like a rainforest canopy, but with an important difference. The vertical spaces between the layers allow air and moisture to circulate.

The Pouched Coral-fern grows in sheltered, well-watered areas. The specimens I was looking at were growing where there was a lot of seeping water. I suspect that the plant has evolved to form a natural umbrella (it is sometimes called the Umbrella Fern) in order to preserve moisture around its roots. As the plants can grow to 4 metres in height, a dense patch of them forms a kind of forest with its own humid microclimate. By preserving soil moisture in this way, the clever fern maintains favourable growing conditions during dry times.

Ringtail possums love to use coral-fern to make their drays or nests in the forks of trees. They somehow know that the hexagonally arrayed leaves bind together to make a particularly strong and dense structure. Even these cute little marsupials have discovered a way of incorporating hexagons into architecture just as bees (in their honeycomb) and humans have.

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I have had a change of plan. Instead of talking about the ripple effects of the beauty buzz in this post, I want to share some further thoughts about the beauty buzz itself.

I have been watching an SBS TV documentary series called “The Code”. According to the presenter, mathematics professor, Marcus du Sautoy, everything in the Universe can be described mathematically. “He would say that”, I hear some cynics say, but he has convinced me that there is a mathematical code – read equations, ratios, numbers and geometry – underpinning all there is in the universe. This applies to the seemingly chaotic complexity of trees, forests, mountain ranges, clouds and coastlines as much as it does to nature’s more orderly structures such as planets, crystals, water droplets and snowflakes.

From time to time in his presentation, du Sautoy drops in references to aesthetics and beauty. He did this, for example, when talking about the Golden Ratio, the relationship (1: 1.618). This ratio, which is commonly associated with the curved elegance of a Nautilus shell and Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man”, crops up many times in art and architecture as well as in nature. The Organ Pipes, Mt Kaputar

Beauty figured again in his exploration of shapes in nature. One of the most remarkable (and potentially aesthetically pleasing) of these shapes is the hexagon – the choice of bees for the cells in honeycomb. The hexagon, or more correctly hexagonal prism, occurs commonly in lava beds such as the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland and the Organ Pipes near Mt Kaputar in northern NSW.

As the close-up shot of the “pipes” shows most of the columns are hexagonal in cross-section.

The columns took on this shape as the lava cooled, contracted and became stressed. The resulting hexagonal pattern of cracking represents the best way of containing these stresses with the minimum of energy. The Universe is lazy says du Sautay and will always save on energy and materials.

Back to the beauty buzz:  du Sautay has helped me to understand more clearly that before the human brain can experience beauty it must first detect the forms, patterns and relationship that give the universe order and meaning. It must be sensitive to symmetry, balance and proportion (e.g., Golden Ratio), for example, and to “good form” as exemplified in the hexagon, the cube, the triangular pyramid and the other three perfectly symmetrical Platonic solids.

I believe that the human brain is hard-wired to make sense of the universe’s handiwork – to discern the forms and patterns of nature spontaneously and intuitively. The fact that we humans are able, without effort, to make sense of what would otherwise be mind-blowing complexity is nothing short of wondrous.

In a particularly fascinating segment, du Sautay takes us behind the art of Jackson Pollack to reveal the depth of that man’s genius.

This is just part of a Pollack canvas but this section is remarkably similar to the canvas a whole. In this and similar works, Jackson captured the essence of the most commonly occurring structure in nature. This structure, technically called a fractal, looks rough and fragmented but it has a defining property that brings order to chaos. A part view of the structure, large or small, is very similar to the view of the whole. For example, the leafy silhouette of a tree is similar whether you are 100, 50 or 10 metres away.

Pollack’s genius lay in creating fractal designs. He probably never heard of fractals but he understood them intuitively. People find beauty in his work in the same way that they find beauty in the rough raggedness of nature. Our brains have been programmed by evolution to do so. What sets Pollack apart is his gift to produce as well as appreciate fractals. He did this without the aid of mathematics and computer generated imaging, just with his brush and his movements around a canvas spread over the floor.

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