MatheMUSEments

Articles for kids about math in everyday life, written by Ivars Peterson for Muse magazine.

March 27, 2007

Nature's Numbers

If you've ever looked for a four-leafed clover, you know that nature rarely delivers such a curiosity. Nearly every clover plant you check has the usual three leaves. If you study the flowers in your garden or in the countryside, you'll discover the most common number of petals is five. Buttercups, geraniums, pansies, primroses, rhododendrons, tomato blossoms, and many more all have five petals.

Five also shows up in arrangements of seeds. Cut an apple in half across its core (rather than the usual way down the core from the stem), and you'll see the seeds arranged in a beautiful five-pointed star. What numbers do cucumbers, tomatoes, pears, and lemons feature?

Pineapples have eight rows of scales, seen as roughly diamond-shaped markings, sloping in one direction and 13 sloping in the other. Pine cones show the same sort of feature.

The head of a sunflower highlights other numbers. In a perfect head, the tiny flowers, or florets, that will become seeds are arranged in two spirals, one winding clockwise and the other counterclockwise. Depending on the species of sunflower, you might find 34 and 55, 55 and 89, or even 89 and 144 florets along a spiral.

Similarly, floret spirals at the center of certain types of daisies feature the numbers 21 and 34. You can look for similar patterns on brocolli or cauliflower.

Take a look at the numbers that nature seems to like (at least in plants): 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, and 144. Can you find a pattern?

Here's a clue: Start with 1 + 1 = 2, and then add the two numbers on each side of the equal sign. Keep on doing this with each new equation that you get.

1 + 1 = 2, 1 + 2 = 3, 2 + 3 = 5, 3 + 5 = 8, 5 + 8 = 13, 8 + 13 = 21, 13 + 21 = 34, and so on.

The sums you get are all members of a famous sequence of numbers named for the mathematician Leonardo of Pisa, also known as Fibonacci, who studied them about 800 years ago. Scientists have long wondered why these number come up in plants. The answer may have something to do with the way plants grow, especially the way petals or buds space themselves to gather the most sunlight and nutrients.

Wherever you look, nature certainly has a way with numbers.

Muse, November 1999, p. 25.