Nature's Numbers

Ian Stewart

Why do many flowers have five or eight petals, but very few six or seven? Why do snowflakes have sixfold symmetry? Why do tigers have stripes but leopards spots?

Throughout human history, artists and scientists alike have been inspired by the form and beauty of the natural world. Our changing vision of the universe, and of our place within it, reflects an ever-growing understanding of pattern and structure in nature. Human mind and culture have invented a formal system of reasoning that lets us recognize, classify, and exploit patterns, whatever they may be and wherever they arise. We call this system mathematics.

Mathematics is, Ian Stewart admits, totally unreal-an entirely mental construct. Furthermore, the complicated equations and lengthy proofs we usually identify as math are no more the essence of math than a musical score is a Beethoven symphony. Yet math is the best tool we have for understanding the world around us. By looking at the universe through mathematical eyes, we have discovered a great secret: nature's patterns are clues to the deep regularities that govern the way the world works.

Mathematics is to nature as Sherlock Holmes is to evidence. It can look at a single snowflake and deduce the atomic structure of ice crystals; it can start with a violin string and uncover the existence of radio waves. And mathematics still has the power to open our eyes to new and unsuspected regularities: the secret structure of a cloud or the hidden rhythms of the weather.

Nature's Numbers will equip you with a mathematician's eyes. It will take you sightseeing in a mathematical universe. And it will change the way you view your own world.


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