Patterns in Nature (OLL Jan-Mar 2013)

Ten evening sessions on the mechanisms of pattern formation in Nature, running from January to March 2013 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.


Course contents

14 Jan 2013: 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, 2.5MB) or PDF (high resolution, 10.9MB)

21 Jan. 2013: Waves and oscillations

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

Presentation: PDF (low resolution, 1.1MB) or PDF (high resolution, 12.2MB)


Additional reading:


The Creeping Garden: A documentary about slime moulds and slime mould research is currently in production. The trailer was released on 29. January and is available online: Taster for Creeping Garden (Vimeo).

28 Jan. 2013: 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, 437kB) or PDF (high resolution, 2.7MB)

Modelling chaos in a spreadsheet:

Additional Reading:

4 Feb. 2013: Animal swarming and collective behaviour

How fish swarms communicate and how social insects cooperate.

Presentation: PDF (low resolution, 576kB) or PDF (high resolution, 3.7MB)


Additional Reading:

11 Feb. 2013: Spatial patterns

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

Presentation: PDF (low resolution, 1.7MB) or PDF (high resolution, 17.3MB)

Videos and material:

Additional literature: 

18 Feb. 2013: Aggregation and growth processes

Crystals, snowflakes, lichen, sunflowers: Find the Fibonacci sequence and the Golden Number in a plastic pineapple!

Presentation: PDF (low resolution, 1.3MB) or PDF (high resolution, 12.8MB)

25 Feb. 2013: Cellular automata and some other topics

How some patterns can be modelled/described by simple discrete models, with applications to the shell of snails.

Presentation: PDF (low resolution, 506kB) or PDF (high resolution, 4.0MB)

Additional Material:

4 Mar. 2013: Fractals

Leaves, trees, river systems and other fractal systems.

Presentation: PDF (low resolution, 1.3MB) or PDF (high resolution, 22MB)

11 Mar. 2013: Perception and related topics

(Human) perception of randomness and patterns.

Presentation: PDF (low resolution, 1.0MB) or PDF (high resolution, 7.9MB)

Additional Material:

18 Mar. 2013: Summary and Discussions

Patterns, self-organization and emergence.

Presentation: PDF (low resolution, 1.0MB) or PDF (high resolution, 17.8MB)

Additional Material:

25 Mar. 2013: Additional session

This is an additional, optional session where we can recapitulate some of the topics again.