Stephan Matthiesen

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Patterns in Nature (OLL Jan-Mar 2011)

Ten morning sessions on the mechanisms of pattern formation in Nature, running form January to March 2011 as part of the open studies programme at Edinburgh University.

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 12 January 2011 (10 Classes) 10:00 - 12:00
  • Basil Skinner Room, 12 Buccleuch Place, at the Office for Lifelong Learning, The University of Edinburgh
  • Course fee: £75.00/£50.00 conc. - please register at the Office for Lifelong Learning or online through the Course Information Page
  • Course code: S216 - Course details

Course contents

12 Jan 2011: Introduction

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

Presentation: PDF (low resolution, 3,1MB) or PDF (high resolution, 12.3MB)

19 Jan. 2011: Waves and oscillations

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

Presentation: PDF (low resolution, 1.2MB) or PDF (high resolution, 2.5MB)

Animations and Videos:

26 Jan. 2011: Regularity and chaos

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

Presentation: PDF (low resolution, 530kB) or PDF (high resolution, 780kB)

Model in a spreadsheet: Excel file (XLS, 12kb). Try varying the values in the yellow fields (see presentation). Can you find the value for r at which periodic behaviour changes to chaotic behaviour?

2 Feb. 2011: Animal Cooperation

How fish swarms communicate and how social insects cooperate.

Presentation:PDF (low resolution, 656kB) or PDF (high resolution, 1.3MB)

Additional material:

Some current research papers on "swarm intelligence":

And, relevant for some earlier classes:

  • Cartwright, J. H. E., Nakamura, H. (2009). What kind of a wave is Hokusai's Great wave off Kanagawa? Notes and Records of the Royal Society 63 (2), 119-135. URL

9 Feb. 2011: Spatial patterns

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

Presentation: PDF (low resolution, 1.3MB) or PDF (high resolution, 2.3Mb)

Additional material:

16 Feb. 2011: Aggregation and growth processes

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

Presentation: PDF (low resolution, 1.4MB) or PDF (high resolution, 2.1MB)

23 Feb. 2011: Cellular automata

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

Presentation: PDF (low resolution, 306kB) or PDF (high resolution, 619kB)

Additional Material:

  • Mirek's Cellebration: Online Java applet and downloadable Java programme for running cellular automata

2 Mar. 2011: Fractals

Leaves, trees, river systems and other fractal systems.

Presentation: PDF (low resolution, 1.3MB) or PDF (high resolution, 2.8MB)

9 Mar. 2011: Miscellaneous topics

(Human) perception of randomness and patterns.

Presentation: PDF (low resolution, 650kB) or PDF (high resolution, 1.2MB)

16 Mar. 2011: Concluding Session

Presentation: PDF (low resolution, 1.3MB) or PDF (high resolution, 2.8MB)

Additional material:

  • NOAA: Honshu tsunami event, 11 March 2011: Information and propagation animation (NOAA/Youtube)
  • NOAA: Chile tsunami event, 27 Feb. 2010: Video with more information on forecasting and observation of tsunamis
  • NASA: Earthquake waves - educational video (Youtube)
  • New research on Turing patterns in 3 dimensions:
    Bánsági, T., Vanag, V. K., Epstein, I. R. (2011) Tomography of Reaction-Diffusion microemulsions reveals Three-Dimensional turing patterns. Science 331 (6022), 1309-1312. URL
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