• Michael Van

Finding Linearity in Nature

Quick – think of something in nature that is linear. Made of lines. Rectilinear. Not man-made. That you can see, not measure with instruments or mathematics. Where do you see lines in nature? Turns out it must be very rare. I can think of some natural phenomena that comes close.

Striped animals kind of have lines:

Cobwebs have saggy lines…

Crystals! Crystals have straight edges. Those magical, sweet crystals.

What about Snowflakes?

JOKE. But look at this real snowflake taken with a microscope

Photo by Alexey Kljatov

What about TIME? Time is linear right?…. and you can kind of see it...or at least experience it.

more (tiny) magical sweet crystals!!

Well according to Einstein and his General Theory of Relativity and Space Time - no, time is not linear and can be observed differently by observers accelerating in different directions and rates. Time, Light, Space, are pulled by gravity.

Gravity can actually probably explain pretty well why we do not find lines in nature. Curves and arches and bending are a giving in to the radial force. Geometric objects have single points of pivots and torque around those pivots. Straight objects do not bend, and with enough force they break. Broken organisms tend not to be very competitive in the natural selection marketplace.

Also from a conservation/natural selection standpoint, a sphere is the most efficient surface-area to volume shape (most volume with least surface area needed, see ). A cube-ish chicken egg, for example, would be extremely inefficient. And, well, the universe prefers efficiency. And basically every natural law affects things radially (source not found...)

So how did we humans get off on making everything so straight and rigid? Somehow, somewhere, we became fascinated with geometry. Going back to cave paintings for a second - this strange grid on the murals at Lascaux may be one of the oldest documented conceptions of linearity and geometric form.

Photo by Don Hitchcock

Now jump ahead 30,000 years and take a look at the most populous city in the world.

I'm sure there are many good reasons for our linear-ization of architecture and manmade objects. Production efficiency, manufacturing etc. makes more economic sense with uniform geometric parts, rather than fitting together a bunch of organic, misshapen, unique ones. Maybe as an extension of the birth of mathematics, we came to view geometry as perfection. As a sort of conquering of nature.

Alas, I really don't find much beauty in geometric perfection. There is already so much perfection to be found in the organic idiosyncrasies of the natural world. And its perfection is strongly ironic - the natural world simply would not be what it is without the accumulation of mutations, mis-copies, and my favorite - mistakes.

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