Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Patterns in Nature

Can you see the Fibonacci sequence in this coneflower?
Photo by Robert Ayers
By Jan Little

Why is it that some things simply appear “right” to our eyes? How is it that we recognize immediately when a flower is misshapen or a fruit has grown incorrectly?

It all has to do with pattern. There are patterns in the world that appear over and over in a variety of plants, animals and even humans. Think of the pinwheels in the middle of a daisy flower, the spiral line of a pine cone, or the average dimensions of a human face. Each of these is part of a pattern called the golden ratio, or Phi. This ratio is commonly written out as a dimension of 1 to 1.65, easily understood as a rectangle that measures 1 along the short side and 1.65 along the long side of the rectangle.

You can measure the width of your face compared to the length of your face and find the same dimension, or the length of your leg from the hip down compared to the length from the knee down to the floor. The same dimensions, drawn graphically as a spiral, are seen in nautilus shells, pineapples, branch distributions on trees, and sedum plants.

People have adapted this golden ratio into everyday objects in our lives. Buildings, such as the Parthenon, are built using these dimensions, and the Chicago-style window and 3 x 5 index cards are all examples of the golden ratio.

Artists use “golden” relationships in their compositions and many books have dissected the geometric compositions of classic artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci and others.

Even today people are still using this ratio as a guide to assist them in designing objects, buildings, landscapes, paintings, or photographs that are seen as beautiful and compelling.

Students in design programs, if they are struggling with a shape or solution but don’t feel that it is quite right, are frequently advised to double-check the dimensions.  Their problems are often solved if they can introduce a “golden ratio” within their design.

This golden ratio is a tool used in nature photography as well. Over and over again, if you introduce these numbers into your photograph it will gain strength in composition. The main subject can be set at a “golden” place within the photograph. Or multiple objects can sit along a graphic “golden” relationship.

Many of the photography classes at Sarah P. Duke Gardens help participants practice creating and capturing this sequence, along with other skills. A 3-class workshop beginning June 14, “Composition and Light,” taught by Paul Wingler, will work to take you beyond your preconceptions and challenge you to thoughtfully use this and other tools. Not only will you have the opportunity to learn how to effectively apply this tool, you will also learn from other students. Seeing what another individual does with the same instructions helps each of us find our way to new perspectives and insights. It is one of the primary benefits of class participation.

In your next nature walk, take a moment to look around. Patterns will simply appear where you did not see them before. They are there for us to find, and each discovery is a moment of wonder. Enjoy.

For more information about classes and programs at Duke Gardens, please go to gardens.duke.edu or call 919-668-1707.

Sarah P. Duke Gardens creates and nurtures an environment in the heart of Duke University for learning, inspiration and enjoyment through excellence in horticulture. The Gardens is at 420 Anderson St.

Jan Little is director of education and public programs at Duke Gardens. This column first appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun.

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