For years Ian Stewart has been wrestling with the mathematical underpinnings of the natural world. In his new book What Shape is a Snowflake?
he explains his fascination with nature's numbers and explores the fruits of his quest so far. No, wait! There isn't a single equation in the book--honest.
Stewart starts with a general exploration of patterns in nature--six-pointed snowflakes, feathery patterns of frost on glass, zebra stripes, ripples in the sand, honeycombs, spirals, and so on--then attempts to illustrate, in words, the mathematical principles underlying them. In the process the reader is introduced to ideas of dimensionality, symmetry in all its manifestations, patterns of tiling and packing, symmetry breaking, fractals, complexity theory and chaos. In the penultimate chapter he goes on to explain how the mathematics of earthly nature may mirror that of the universe. Finally he addresses the question of the book's title: What shape is a snowflake? You may be disappointed with the answer, but only if you don't get the joke.
Snowflake is a fascinating read, though it does requires a bit of patience. Much space in the first half of the book is given over to introducing patterns without offering many clues as to what generates them. In consequence, I found myself skipping sections to get to the juicier bits towards the end. Still, for the numerically challenged but patient reader, Snowflake is as friendly an introduction to the mathematics of nature as you could wish to find.--Chris Lavers
About the Author
IAN STEWART is Professor of Mathematics at the University of Warwick . He broadcasts regularly on television and radio, has written or co-authored more than 60 books. In 1995 he was awarded the Michael Faraday Medal by the Royal Society. understanding of science.