Searching for symmetry in the stripes of a tiger

What Shape Is a Snowflake?
October 18, 2002

Science suffers from an acute shortage of popularisers of genuine quality. David Attenborough and Patrick Moore have been aristocrats of the small screen for decades; but one is left wondering where successors of comparable influence will be found. Popularisers who excel through the written word are equally rare. We have recently lost Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould, though Richard Dawkins and Sir Martin Rees are still going strong. Among the few scientists able to combine genuine scholarship with the ability to present their work with clarity to a general readership, Ian Stewart is rapidly establishing a pre-eminent position. His expository style, combining an enthusiasm for science, clarity of purpose and poetic prose, is a model for other scientists wishing to popularise their craft.

Stewart is a mathematician; he presents his mathematics in the context of a universe full of wonderful things that require explanation and where mathematics can bring order and simplicity to such explanations. At a time when young people are turning away from science, we are in desperate need of people such as Stewart to demonstrate just how exciting and useful it can be. This book is a masterpiece of its genre. But it is not just a book to excite young people about science. It should also spur parents to encourage their offspring to pursue mathematics and science with a renewed enthusiasm and vigour. In fact the book will be read and enjoyed by anyone seeking answers to the question "why is the natural world the way it is?"

It tells a fascinating tale about patterns in nature; patterns showing remarkable symmetry but infinite variety. The concept of symmetry is tempered by the impact of chaos and complexity, adding an element of mathematical intrigue to the story. The snowflake is a fascinating example; with its sixfold symmetry, but with no two snowflakes being exactly the same. In exploring such symmetries, we are introduced to an appealing amalgam of science: chemistry, in the structure of the fullerenes; zoology, in the nature of a tiger's stripes; botany, in a flower's assembly of petals; geology, in the arrangement of sand dunes; physics, in the symmetry within quantum theory; and astronomy, in the distribution of galaxies. The universe is laid out in all its rich diversity - but with an underlying simplicity revealed by mathematics.

The publishers have produced artwork and illustrations of as fine a quality as I have seen in any science volume. Artwork and prose complement each other beautifully.

From the time when the ancients were fascinated by the beauty of numbers and shape until now, when mathematicians provide scientists with tools to explain the natural world, mathematics has been one of the triumphs of the human intellect. Stewart's book is a triumph of popular science exposition.

David Clark is director of research and innovation, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

What Shape Is a Snowflake?: Magical Numbers in Nature

Author - Ian Stewart
ISBN - 0 297 60723 5
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £20.00
Pages - 224

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