Stephan Matthiesen

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Patterns in Nature (OLL Jan-Mar 2008)

Ten evenings about the mechanisms of pattern formation in Nature form this evening class which is held from January to March 2008 as part of the open studies programme at The University of Edinburgh.

Course Information

Why do trees look like trees and snowflakes like snowflakes? How do termites build elaborate structures without supervision? What can boiling porridge tell us about clouds? This fully illustrated course explains how patterns in nature can form through self-organisation, using examples and methods from a variety of scientific disciplines. Suitable for anyone who’s ever wondered about the astonishing complexity of nature, you’ll never look at the world in quite the same way again.


  • Tutor: Stephan Matthiesen
  • Mondays from 14 January 2008 (10 Classes) 6:30pm - 8:30pm
  • Fleming Room, 12 Buccleuch Place, at the Office for Lifelong Learning, The University of Edinburgh
  • Course fee: £75.00/£50.00 conc. - please enrol at the Office for Lifelong Learning
  • Course code: S214 - Course details - Information sheet

Course contents

7 Jan 2008: Introduction

A tour through patterns in nature, outlining and structuring the topic, and brainstorming: which patterns have students observed in nature?

14 Jan. 2008: Waves and oscillations

We look at waves in the ocean, the atmosphere (cloud patterns!) etc., and why our heart beats.

21 Jan. 2008: Regularity and chaos

Using examples like population cycles or climate fluctuations, we introduce concepts like the logistic equation, bifurcations and attractors.

28 Jan. 2008: Animal Cooperation

How fish swarms communicate and how social insects cooperate.

4 Feb. 2008: Spatial patterns

Cracks in mud, paint, soil patterns in Arctic soils, and similar topics.

11 Feb. 2008: Aggregation and growth processes

Crystals, snowflakes, lichen, and the shells of snails.

18 Feb. 2008: Cellular automata

Recap of some of the earlier topics and how they can be modelled/described by simple discrete models.

25 Feb. 2008: Fractals

Leaves, trees, river systems and other fractal systems.

3 Mar. 2008: Miscellaneous topics

(Human) perception of randomness and patterns.

10 Mar. 2008: Concluding Session


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