The images on our website have been chosen to be both beautiful and interesting.
Although the things they represent often appear very complex they can, in many cases, be more clearly understood through the use of quite simple relationships and models. In researching these images we also found many instances where improved understanding of natural phenomena inspired innovation, or understanding about organisational and societal behaviour.
We hope you enjoy browsing the images as much as we enjoyed putting them together. If you have an idea for an image and you would like to see it incorporated into our website please email your suggestion(s) to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The ‘Butterfly Effect’ describes the propensity of some system to be sensitive to initial conditions. Even simple systems can display this property: for example, a ball placed at the crest of a hill might roll into different valleys depending on slight changes in its initial position. This idea gave rise to the notion of a butterfly flapping its wings in one area of the world causing (or preventing) a tornado in another.
The practical consequence of this is that complex systems, such as the weather, are difficult or impossible to predict past a certain time range (approximately a week in the case of weather). However, while it is impossible to exactly predict the future state of such a system, this does not prevent the overall limits of the system’s behaviour from being explored.
As the surrounding environment changes the chameleon adapts its skin colour in three different but related ways:
UKCIP use the chameleon as a model for how human society, and the individuals and organisations that make up society, will adapt to a changing climate.
A single fish, ant or bee isn't smart, but their shoals and colonies are. Swarm intelligence is achieved through a vast number of individual decisions that each follows a set of simple basic rules. The ingredients of smart group behaviour, decentralized control, response to local cues and simple rules of thumb, add up to a shrewd strategy to cope with complexity.
The study of swarm intelligence is providing insights that can help humans manage complex systems, from truck routing to first response robots.
Plant biologists and engineers are looking to leaves to help them make smaller and more efficient solar cells. A leaf has tens of thousands of tiny photosynthetic reaction centres that produce energy silently from water and sunlight and operate at very high efficiency.
Mimics of these molecular-scale solar batteries are being used to increase the efficiency of conversion of sunlight to electricity in solar cells, and could one day be used as computer switching devices that shuttle light instead of electrons.
This extraordinary image is a fractal.
Fractals have inspired artists and sent mathematicians into flights of theory. Thought, at first, to have little practical application they are now being used to track down stolen antiques, predict earthquakes, find buried minerals and plot the distribution of galaxy clusters throughout the universe. Even psychiatrists are turning to fractals, believing they may cast new light on mental illness.
Spira mirabilis, Latin for "miraculous spiral", is another name for the logarithmic spiral.
This spiral possesses a unique property, the size of the spiral increases but its shape is unaltered with each successive curve. Possibly as a result of this unique property, the spira mirabilis has evolved in nature, appearing in certain growing forms such as nautilus shells.
Fibonacci sequences appear in many biological settings, such as the branching in bushes and trees, the arrangement of scales on a pine cones and the packing of seeds on a sunflower. The seeds in the head of a sunflower are arranged in two sets of spirals, twisting in opposite directions. A sunflower usually has 34 spirals going clockwise, and 55 going anti-clockwise. This arrangement ensures that as many seeds as possible are accommodated in the space.
The Fibonacci sequence is defined as follows: after two starting values, each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers. The first Fibonacci numbers are therefore: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55.
The mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot saw connections between fractals and real-world phenomena including the shapes found in coastlines and rivers, blood vessels and lungs, plants and frost on a window pane. Many people think that the similarity between fractal and natural phenomena is not superficial, that at some fundamental level natural objects are obeying a form of rule system that bears a similarity to the rules that govern fractals.
Perhaps one reason we see fractal structures a lot in nature is that they are easy to code. The process of generating a fractal is based on a simple equation. It doesn't take a lot of information to describe a fractal object, information that can be stored in the genes of living things.
In terms of man made structures, long span bridges need to be structurally efficient and this often results in a simple elegance that mirrors the natural world. Cable stayed bridges are particularly good examples of this but, as so often in nature, closer inspection reveals that the simplicity of the design relies on intelligent use of materials.
In this way structures can be seen to evolve as higher strength, lighter weight materials are developed.
In 1088 AD, Chinese scientist Shen Kuo observed with surprise that a lightning strike left some of the wooden walls of a house merely blackened and lacquer wares untouched, while metal objects such as a steel sword were melted into liquid.
Almost a millennium later lightning still presents many riddles to modern science and Shen Kuo’s warning remains as applicable today to the understanding of organisations and risks as they were to natural phenomena in his time.
The spiral (or more accurately helical) staircase is often used as a space saving device, but why are helices found so often in nature, in shells, the horns of mountain goats, in DNA and in many other molecules found in the cells of living creatures? Perhaps because they are nature’s space savers; in the dense environment of the cell, long molecular chains frequently adopt ordered helical conformations to enable information to be tightly packed.
More than 400 years before the discovery of DNA's structure, the double helix was employed in the grand staircase of Chambord, begun 1519 and probably designed by Leonardo da Vinci. The double helix allowed the king to share the staircase with others, but avoid having to meet his servants. More recent applications allow more people to be evacuated down the same stairwell space.