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October, 2002


by Valerie

Our life revolves around patterns. From the circadian cycle to the orbits of planets around a sun, there are billions of different types of phenomena that we call patterns. It could be that these repetitions, cycles, symmetries, rhythms, designs and melodies are all merely inside our brains. They are our way of making sense of the myriad stimuli that incessantly bombard us. We enjoy celebrating anniversaries of all sorts; giving structure to our daily, weekly, monthly, annual, and entire lives. One of the principle attractions of studying cosmology is discovering the consistencies which help us try to understand our physical universe. Much of our concept of beauty relies on the harmony of various elements in creating the whole, whether obviously arranged to create a desirable effect or giving the illusion of a serendipitous congruence.

cloud and building in Austin

I could write of just about anything and it would relate to patterns. They permeate our existence to the extent that it would be difficult to find something that does NOT fit into some sort of sequence, whether it be temporal or spatial, aural or visual. We are capable of organizing splotches of color and shapes into fine art, black line symbols into letters, words, sentences and ideas, and pitches, rhythms and timbres into symphonies.

One of my favorite pastimes is observing. As humans, we are endowed with an enormous amount of cerebral matter that just demands to be occupied. Simple gathering of information through our senses would mean nothing if we didn't proceed further. Most of us don't just watch something; we think, wonder, anticipate, contrast, remember, compare, and draw conclusions. If we witness a completely unfamiliar object moving in a totally unfamiliar way, our brains begin the detective work of trying to solve the mystery by fitting this new data into our pre-existing catalog of experience. We search for patterns.

Certain very simple elements occur again and again in our environment. Circles and spirals come to mind. There are so many ways in which these motifs appear that we rarely even notice them. But try drawing a perfect circle freehand, and suddenly one's appreciation of this basic shape deepens. In true fractal manner, the round form appears from the smallest particles we have discovered to something as large as the nearest star: our Sun. Who can not be entranced by the spiral trails of atom fragments produced in a super collider?

The remarkable studies by M.C. Escher introduced me to a whole new layer of complexity when it comes to patterns. Manipulating the idea of tessellation into ever more intricate designs, he displayed the same virtuosity in his drawings as a master musician, writer or mathematician might in their respective media. Puzzles and many games are also based on our knowledge of patterns, whether it is the miniscule visual clues in a jigsaw puzzle or the mental gymnastics of chess moves.

prism at Houston Museum
of Natural Science
Even in apparent chaos, we often find patterns. Who has not looked at the random movements of clouds and seen objects, landscapes, or figures? There is a definite lure to watching the ever changing shapes and forms in cascading water or a blazing fire. The way in which the wind dances over tall grass, the pebbles on a rocky shore, large flocks of birds or schools of fish, and even the irregularities in a blank wall, can all spark our imaginations to invent images or designs. Our mind does not just go blank while observing, but instead, the longer we concentrate on the texture, movement, or colors, the more likely we are to "see" more than the substance itself. Since recorded history (and probably before), our species has created images out of the tiny specks of light that adorn our night skies, inventing constellations to help us locate particular stars and map the heavens.

Although large, impressive patterns can be dramatic, sometimes the search for the obscure, barely noticed details can be even more rewarding. The grain of a piece of lumber, the feel of a cat's fur, the cracks in a porcelain finish, or the tiny chirpings of insects, can all become something worthy of study in our never ending search for patterns.

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