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The Self-Made Tapestry: Pattern Formation in Nature [Kindle Edition]

Philip Ball
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)

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Book Description

For centuries, scientists have struggled to understand the origins of the patterns and forms found in nature-from the leopards spots to the graceful spirals of a mollusc shell to the complex designs on a butterflys wing. Now, in this lucid and elegantly written book, Philip Ball applies state-of-the-art scientific understanding from the fields of biology, chemistry, geology, physics, and mathematics to these ancient mysteries, revealing how nature's seemingly complex patterns originate in simple physical laws.
Ball traces the history of scientific thought about natural patterns, showing how common presumptions-for example, that complex form must be guided by some intelligence or that form always follows function-are erroneous and continue to mislead scientists today. He investigates specific patterns in depth, revealing that these designs are self-organized and that simple, local interactions between component parts produce motifs like spots, stripes, branches, and honeycombs. In the process, he examines the mysterious phenomenon of symmetry and why it appears-and breaks-in similar ways in different systems. Finally, he attempts to answer this profound question: why are some patterns universal? Illustrations throughout the text, many in full color, beautifully illuminate Ball's ideas.
A fascination with nature,s patterns is as old as civilization. With this spellbinding book, Ball dispels age-old conundrums while increasing the readers wonder and appreciation for the beauty of the natural world. The Self-Made Tapestry will enlighten anyone who has ever marveled at the shape of a seashell or the brilliance of a spider's web.

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Amazon Review

The patterns of nature have fascinated humans for millennia. From spirals carved into rock during Neolithic times to the sand patterns of "executive" toys, we respond to and often replicate the underlying "order" of nature. The mathematical regularity of logarithmic spiral patterns in plant growth, such as seen in the florets of sunflowers and cauliflowers, was first characterised in 1202 by the Italian, Leonardo of Pisa, nicknamed Fibonacci. Since then technological and mathematical advances have allowed us to see patterning on all scales from spiral galaxies to vortices, waves and turbulence in the atmosphere and oceans and down into the packing of atoms and Mandelbrot fractal patterns of growth in all sorts of materials. So close do the worlds of the organic and inorganic become that they can be hard to tell apart. As Philip Ball asks: "Surely we can...tell a crystal from a living creature, an insect from a rock?"

British science writer Philip Ball joins an illustrious band of scientists and writers who have been stimulated to try and make sense of all this patterning which surrounds us. He particularly follows in the footsteps of D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, whose 1917 book On Growth and Form has been enormously influential. Generations of scientists have been inspired to look more closely at the relationships between organisms and the way they use materials for constructing their skeletons and homes from individual shells to whole cities. Equally, artists have been reminded to look again at nature, just as their Renaissance forbears, such as Leonardo Da Vinci, did. Modern architects looked again at the logarithmic spiral and the Golden Section derived from it, as did the superlative architects of classical Greece, to proportion their buildings.

Thompson's classic work is a particularly hard "act" to follow but Ball acquits himself very well. From his position as an editor at premier science journal Nature, Ball is particularly well placed to survey the enormous range of contemporary scientific investigation which reveals the extraordinary extent of nature's patterning. Using a wealth of illustration, Ball attempts to go beyond the niceties of a host of attractive examples, in order to "map many of nature's tapestries into some universal blueprints, in which the specifics cease to matter". The physics, mathematics and chemistry are well handled for the lay reader. A good bibliography, index and "home experiments" (not for the uninitiated) help those who want to explore further. After reading this book you will find yourself looking anew at cracked windows, fingerprints, dissolving coffee grains, boiling water, leaf veins... --Douglas Palmer


"Philip Ball has produced a superb book about patterns in nature, The Self-Made Tapestry. From the ribbed desert sands to tree-form streaks of lightening, countless examples give rise to fascinating reflections on the astounding order that exists amid chaos. Lavishly illustrated, this is a stunning book." (The Sunday Times)

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 17545 KB
  • Print Length: 312 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (7 Jan. 1999)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B001G60W64
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Not Enabled
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #1,059,936 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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More About the Author

Philip Ball is a freelance science writer. He worked at Nature for over 20 years, first as an editor for physical sciences (for which his brief extended from biochemistry to quantum physics and materials science) and then as a Consultant Editor. His writings on science for the popular press have covered topical issues ranging from cosmology to the future of molecular biology.

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Well written and beautifully illustrated 18 Jun. 2001
By A Customer
An excellent book which takes you on an journey through nature. From sea shells to trees, it explains the fundamental growth laws that determine shape and form, whilst avoiding detailed mathematical treatments of geometry. Philip Ball demonstrates how features such as structure and functionality can be "built in" using only the most basic design principles, and how form is so often determined by nescessity. A probablistic approach to construction - where only the most "efficient" forms are employed, and nature does this so effortlessly - captivating! The illustrations and photography are excellent and help to keep you hooked. Recommeded reading for chemists, nanotechnologists and architects.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Blind Physical Forces meet Biological Systems 12 Aug. 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
How do complex geometries arise in nature, where disorder necessarily increases? Is there more to the shape of living forms than genetic information alone would suggest? Ball tackles these questions and many more, in a (largely successful) investigation into how biological patterns are generated with no conscious forethought.

Ball's background in chemistry and physics is much in evidence, but his use of many photos is effective in illustrating his examples. Perhaps controversially, I think this book would be most enjoyed by science graduates; despite having science A-levels, I admit parts of this book went over my head!

However, I found the widely misunderstood topic of entropy reassuringly clear - no rules of science are violated in the generation of complexity, but complexity is often a sign that a reaction hasn't yet reached equilibrium.

I got the impression that Ball was being honest with respect to acknowledging the limitations of chemical experiment and computer simulations to explain some of the biological systems - correlation often does not imply causation.

Buy this book if you really enjoy a science text to get your teeth into, but be aware it probably exceeds the boundary of 'popular science' for most people.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars It's OK, nothing more. 13 Jan. 2010
I typically enjoy Philip Ball a lot, this book however lacks his usual rhetoric class. It's an interesting topic matter and thankfully he does not sugar-coat / dumb-down the story, but it's not as enjoyable a read as it could have been.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.8 out of 5 stars  14 reviews
73 of 74 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant overview of a complex sublect 27 April 2000
By Michael J. Edelman - Published on
From the very begiing of rational inquiry, a small number of philosophers and scientific researchers in different fields have asked a rather large question: What are the characteristics of the physical world that drive the creation of complex structures? This is a question that goes beyond simply asking why shells spiral, or why snowflakes have symmetry; it asks instead why do tree branches, root systems and the dendritic structures of nerve cells all share a common structure?
I've been curious about this question since my early grad school days, but for a long time the topic was thought at a minimum to be a rather eccentric one; many thought it simply unproductive, or even unscientific.
But the last twenty years has seen an explosion in the areas of complexity, chaos and other studies that go to the heart of asking why the world is structured (on a macroscopic scale) the way it is, and why there are so many parallels of structure between seemingly unrelated entities.
While there have been a great many books in recent years looking at that very question, "The Self-Made Tapestry" is this first really complete overview of the field and its history, and it's quite an accomplishment. Profusely illustrated, engagingly written, and marvelously clear, it's not only a wonderful reference book, it's marvelously entertaining to read as well.
If you've found yourself in recent times pouring over Glieck's "Chaos", or perhaps Stuart Kauffman's books on self-organization, or Waldrop's "Complexity", you'll delight in this book. It's a good reference for the academic, a fine introduction for the interested layman, and a treat for every interested reader.
30 of 32 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very good introduction to study of pattern formation 3 Feb. 2000
By Joris - Published on
I'm a theoretical biologist who has studied (some) of the subjects in this book. Although some of the details may sometimes be wrong, overall this book gives a superb introduction to the field. Pattern formation is one of the hot topics in biology now. This book assumes no previous knowledge, but it does require an intelligent reader who want to know- or someone who just likes to marvel at beatutiful pictures. I gave it to a lot of my friends to introduce them to `my' subject, and I certainly recommend it over any of the other `popular' approaches to pattern studies. JJW
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Want to know more about nature? read this! 20 April 1999
By A Customer - Published on
The topic of this book is basically why I'm interested in science. Having studied the physics and math related to the phenomena described in the book for quite a while, I must say that this book is a 'must' for anybody who wants to know more about nature. Never mind that on a few occasions some inaccuracies occur; this is a book that will make you wonder, and not many books can say that. The only niggle is that a book this good should not have been written in the overly-casual 'I' form; this is not a narrative, but a great scientific book. The style of writing should reflect that.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Self-Made Tapestry: Pattern Formation in Nature 5 Feb. 2004
By Khemprof - Published on
The Self-Made Tapestry: Pattern Formation in Nature written by Philip Ball gives us some answers to long-standing questions as to why there are patterns in designs in nature that reoccur in seemly unrelated objects.

Biologists are used to the idea that form follows function. The shape and structure of a biological entity whether it is a protein molecule, an organism, or the wind blowing ripples in a sand dune all have a purpose and a function. These are things I was curious about when I was studying in college, things that caught my attention as interrelated but how and why. Of course, things in my life became more complex, but these questions still always seemed to weigh in the back of my mind... A tree with limbs and a lightning bolt look similar and so too roots and nerves.

Well, "The Self-Made Tapestry" explains the why and how of why these similarities do exist. This book explains why these are not just coincidences. As nature weaves it tapestry through self-organization it employs no master plan it just applies simple local interactions between the component parts. The component parts impart a common self-organization to energy conservation allowing for typically universal patterns.

What I liked about this book is the author has put complex theories into non-technical language along with adequate illustrations show the reader how these patterns come about.

If you looking for a book on explains some of life's and nature's mysteries this is the book for you as it is highly readable and you begin to understand why things are as they are. The book reads like a textbook , the chapters build upon one another making for an accumulation of knowledge bases on a solid foundation from the start.

This book is a solid 4 stars giving the reader a adequate knowledge of the hows and whys of nature. This book only has very minor flaws, but that is all. I would highly recommend this book for you home science library as it would make a worthwhile addition.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sad 3 Aug. 2004
By Michael Shea - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I hope some publisher will do the world a favor and keep this book in print. It's a classic that belongs on the shelf right next to D'Arcy Thompson's "On Growth and Form." This might seem strange for me to say, but if I were to design an educational curriculum for people learning my profession (oncology), this book would be mandatory. It is highly recommended for anyone interested in morphogenesis. If anyone knows where I can buy 10 or 20 unused copies, I'd appreciate hearing from you (
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