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Nature’s numbers

In the spirit of Plato, a new generation of science mavericks is seeking to find a mathematical understanding of nature, from the number of petals in a flower to the shape of spots on a peacock. Ian Stewart explains why we should take their flaky theory seriously

By Ian Stewart   February 1996

Human beings have been aware of patterns in nature for as long as they have been human. Without such an awareness, human culture cannot function. Agriculture is impossible without an understanding of the seasons; even before agriculture, hunting depended upon animal life cycles and patterns as simple as the trajectory of a thrown rock. Humans have discovered that one of the most effective tools for grasping nature’s patterns is mathematics.

Some physicists think that the universe is made of mathematics. Even if this is an exaggeration, there is no doubt that the universe often behaves as if mathematics is a…

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