God by the Numbers

August 13, 2019

"Illuminated Queen Anne's Lace 2" by Eric Rennie

For those of us who never got past introductory calculus, the idea that “God is a mathematician of a very high order,” as the physicist Paul Dirac once expressed it, might appear to do little to clarify things.  What does it mean when a mathematician or physicist calls an equation “beautiful,” if it looks to the rest of us like a Mayan hieroglyph?  But then I discovered there is abundant photographic evidence of God’s mathematical handiwork in nature; in fact, I had taken a number of such pictures myself without realizing it.  

Lately I have been photographing wildflowers I find growing by the side of the road. I shoot them in a dark room under a cone of white light, using a macro lens that allows me to get in close.  I suspect I will never appreciate the beauty of an equation in written form, but it is quite another matter when the equation is expressed as a fractal, a geometric configuration that abounds in nature, including the intricate spiral formations in the head of a daisy or the tiny iterative blooms in Queen Anne’s Lace. Once you know what you are looking for, fractals can by found anywhere:  in crystals, snowflakes, pineapples, Romanesco broccoli, lightning bolts, tree branches, even coastlines – all of which can be expressed mathematically.  

Admittedly, there are gaps in my education, particularly when it comes to higher math. But I have an excuse this time: there wasn't even a name for fractals until I was out of school. They were discovered – if that is the word -- by Benoit Mandelbrot, a French mathematician who spent most of·his career at IBM, because no university worthy of his talents would hire him. (Late in his career he landed at Yale, which awarded him tenure at age 75.)  According to Mandelbrot, fractals are natural or man-made objects that are “irregular, rough, porous or fragmented and which possess these properties at any scale. That is to say they have the same shape, whether seen from close or from far.”  To me, their significance is not just that they can be described mathematically, but that many of them are quite beautiful.  If God is a mathematician, then he is also an artist.

 

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