Shapes by Philip Ball

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Shapes by Philip Ball

Category: Popular Science
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Sharon Hall
Reviewed by Sharon Hall
Summary: This is an excellent thought-provoking synthesis of the science behind shapes and patterns in nature. It can be a challenging read, but the wealth of examples and illustrations help to keep the reader engaged
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: March 2009
Publisher: OUP
ISBN: 978-0199237968

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Shapes is one volume of a new trilogy born out of the author's 1999 book The Self-Made Tapestry: Pattern Formation in Nature, in which he surveyed a range of contemporary scientific investigation into the extent of nature's patterning with examples taken from areas such as plant growth, minerals, shells, desert sands, lightning, galaxies and atoms. This book has been restructured into the stand-alone volumes Shapes, Flow and Branches, with new material added.

Ball starts Shapes by looking at living forms and the diversity of living organisms, paying homage to the seminal 1917 text On Growth and Form, which provided the first formal analysis of pattern and form in nature. D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson's book was difficult to characterise, and Ball notes that for a long time no-one really knew what to make of it. In his classic book, Thompson presented a challenge to the standard view that non-living systems can produce only simple geometric shapes, such as in crystals, and that life forms produce very complex shapes.

Advances in science since 1917 have meant that tools and concepts, particularly in physics and mathematics, now exist to unravel the processes creating these shapes. Ball discusses the concepts of form, pattern and symmetry, noting and unpacking (thankfully, for this reader) some of the mathematical concepts which help to make the definition of shape a more precise one.

Ball is an experienced commentator in the scientific and popular media on science and its interactions with art, history and culture and so, for example, approaches the work of the 19th century zoologist and artist Ernst Haeckel with a number of hats on. From 1899, Haeckel published a portfolio of 100 plates entitled Art Forms in Nature. He drew birds, turtles, pine cones, jelly fish and other creatures in remarkably fine detail, producing seemingly Baroque-like ornamental forms which look more like products of the imagination than of reality. Haeckel sought order amongst nature's forms, and his illustrations were chosen to support his contention that form, symmetry and order in the living world were inevitable processes. His work on single-shelled sea creatures seemed to show mathematical ordering in operation, and he sought to classify them with schemes used to describe non-living crystal forms. Thompson took on board these cellular hexagonal patterns, together with those of bee honeycombs, and used the laws of physics and the science of bubbles to explain how these shapes have occurred. Ball discusses the background science to surface tension which creates these forms, as well of that of the 'pearls' on the strands of spiders' webs.

Ball looks at a very wide variety of forms including soap bubbles and foams, the compound eye of a fly, cell membranes, polymer plastics, chemical reactions, banded minerals such as agates, and bacteria, drawing on a variety of sources from 18th and 19th century science as well as contemporary investigations. The mathematician Alan Turing, whose ground breaking work on computing laid the foundations for artificial intelligence, also considered the questions of chemical symmetry with respect to the development of embryos – how can a symmetrical ball of cells develop into cells with different properties and forms? Ball looks Turing's theory of how this might happen with regard to the development of animal markings, patterns on shells, and of moth and butterfly markings.

The dynamics of populations have attracted commentary from economists, political philosophers and scientists. The famous 18th century work by the economist Thomas Malthus was a catalyst for a diverse group of people including Karl Marx and Charles Darwin. Darwin went on to develop his theory of competition for resources and how species evolve to exploit the variety of resources and conditions available. However, not all can be explained by this alone, and in the section Rhythms of the Wild, Ball adds ecological symmetry and spatial patterning to the mix (to be discussed more fully in the companion volumes), looking at predator and prey cycles. This section also considers the building processes of social insects such as ants and termites.

Spiral patterns in plant life have also attracted a great deal of interest. Florets on a flower head, pine cones and the placement of leaves around a stem all show this feature of phyllotaxis. Analysing these spirals mathematically shows that they generally conform to the Fibonacci sequence of numbers, also known as the Golden Mean or Section. These numbers are also considered by some artists, architects and composers to constitute the perfect proportions for their work. Ball looks at these spirals in more detail, bringing in again the work of Turing and other researchers.

Curiously, there are four appendices, each inviting you to experiment – with soap films, oscillating chemical reactions, chemical waves, and Liesegang Bands. These rather lift the volume out of the popular science mould, unless you happen to have reagents such as hydrous cobalt chloride, malonic acid and Triton-X-100 kicking around.

In this volume, Ball uses his own background as a chemist and physicist, as well as his experience of writing for wider audiences very well, although some sections were a little tough going. However, there is much to stimulate and entertain, whether you approach this at a popular (if demanding) science level or, as I did, as part of research and background for art projects. His synthesis of historical and current material is excellent.

There are 220 black and while illustrations and an 8-page colour plate section (not included in the proof copy used for the review).

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this gets you interested in evolution, you might like to try On the Origin of Species: The Illustrated Edition by Charles Darwin and David Quammen (Author and Editor).

Booklists.jpg Shapes by Philip Ball is in the List Of Books To Celebrate Charles Darwin's 200th Anniversary.
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Buy Shapes by Philip Ball at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Shapes by Philip Ball at


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