Julian Sheather: On form in nature

Poking around the bookshop at the Wellcome Trust, as is my occasional habit, I recently came across a small book, not much bigger than my hand, that, in spite of my seasonal poverty, I knew I had to buy. (I have never quite succeeded in aligning my passion for books with their price, some infant part of me believing that knowledge should not be reduced to the cash nexus.) The book in question, Li: dynamic form in nature, is a typology of naturally occurring patterns. No doubt most of us will have looked from time to time at the ripple of a sand dune or the ribs of a ‘mackerel sky’ – the phrase itself pulling attention to the way the lateral markings on the fish echo the shapes of the high furled cloud – and wondered how the play of blind forces gives rise to patterns that so delight the eye. Born on a boat, one of my earliest pleasures was watching the endless fluid forms of the river as it slid downstream, its whorls and eddies, its ripples and races, a lovely liquid interplay between confusion and order.

Although probably not published with scientists directly in mind – sister titles in the series include Sacred Springs, Runic Inscriptions, Dowsing and Crop Circles – Li  was a top three recommendation by no lesser journal than the New Scientist. Nor is it couched in new age nebulosities. Alongside the simple beauty of the plates, David Wade’s prose brings analytical clarity. This is from the entry Vermiculate – worm-like arrangements:

When fluid is vigorously heated, for instance, many spirals appear which mingle and react with each other to form a spiral defect chaos. A similar effect occurs as a result of the interaction of magnetocrystalline energies on a garnet film, so-called magnetic domain patterns.

The book’s title, Li, a word hitherto unfamiliar to me, comes from the Chinese. According to Wade, the word can support a number of translations, but the concept to which it refers “falls between our notions of ‘pattern’ and ‘principle’”, which I take to mean that it refers both to the patterns themselves and to the principle or principles that give rise to them.

According to Wade there are twenty four of these ‘Li’ ranging from Phyllotaxy, or ‘dynamic spirality’, shown by a section through a cabbage, ‘which is essentially a greatly enlarged terminal bud’ and which arises when the Fibonacci progression of leaf distribution is greatly compressed, through ‘ripples and dunes’, ‘nebulous’ or cloud-like formations, to branching and riverine patterns. Flicking through the plates that exemplify each of the Li – the veins of a rhododendron leaf, crusts of gallium oxide, the suture lines in a fossil ammonite – tracing the family resemblances, the formal echoes and symmetries, it is easy to be lulled into conjecture about the existence of a primal structure underlying reality, an archetypal template that the universe draws on when it give material shape to its energies. How else to explain the sense of aesthetic kinship between otherwise divergent phenomena?

Books have a fond habit, however unknowingly, of talking to each other. A theme in one will be picked up and played with in another, shared preoccupations refracted through different minds, scattered paths to a shared goal, however distant and vague. In his lovely meditation on wilderness, The Wild Places, the mountaineer and natural historian Robert Macfarlane salutes a fascinating clutch of men – he calls them ‘monadists’ on account of the intense singularity of their focus – who became obsessed with wave forms in nature. Chief among them was a man called Vaughan Cornish. Living on the Dorset coast at the end of the nineteenth century he became increasingly entranced by the shape of the waves falling on the beach at the bottom of his garden. ‘I read Cornish’s books with increasing wonder at this man’, writes Macfarlane:

He pointed out similarities between the movement of steam quitting a chimney, the arrangement of water weed tresses in a stream, the way fallen leaves drift before the wind, the composition of quicksand, the rippled effect called ‘mackerel’ sky, the body-shapes of fish and cetaceans, the wings of bird…

According to Macfarlane, during the early decades of the twentieth century Cornish published an extraordinary and obsessive  sequence of books on wave forms, including Waves of the Sea and Other Water Waves, Waves of Sand and Snow and Ocean Waves and Kindred Geographical Phenomena. ‘His curiosity was exemplary. Why, he wanted to know, did flowing water create transverse ripples of sand, hard underfoot, like the ridges in a cassock?’

There is a family resemblance between Cornish’s books, The Wild Places and Wade’s engrossing little monograph. Macfarlane himself diagnoses it. All three share a sensibility, a sensibility kindled by a deep aesthetic response to the natural world, but also a sensibility that needs the full analytical resources of science to articulate it, a vision, as Macfarlane puts it, that hovers ‘partway between spirituality and hard science.’

In many of these blogs I have rubbed up against the over-worn distinction between science and art, or science and the humanities, as though the known world could be folded in half along a single crease, with science on one page, culture on the other. The lovely things about these fine books is how easily they expose the distinction as a fraud. They are both ways of knowing the world. Or, as Wittgenstein put it – assuming that I have understood him correctly, always an uneasy assumption –  ‘the mystical is not how the world is but that it is.’

Julian Sheather is ethics manager, BMA. The views he expresses in his blog posts are entirely his own.