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Shape and waves

2006-09-08 13:33

    The idea of shape having an influence on the functions taking place within it is not a new one. A French firm once produced a special container for making yogurt, because that particular shape enhanced the action of the micro-organism involved in the process. The brewers of a Czechoslovakian beer tried to change from round to angular barrels but found that this resulted in a deterioration in the quality of their beer despite the fact that the method of processing remained unchanged. A German researcher has shown that mice with identical wounds heal more quickly if they are kept in spherical cages. Architects in Canada report a sudden improvement in schizophrenic patients living in trapezoidal hospital wards.

    It is possible that all shapes have their own qualities and that the forms we see around us are the result of combinations of environmental frequencies. In the eighteenth century the German physicist Ernst Chladni discovered a way of making vibration patterns visible. He fixed a thin metal plate on to a violin, scattered sand on the plate, and found that when a bow was drawn across the strings, the sand arranged itself into beautiful patterns. These arrangements, now known as Chladni‘s figures, have been extensively used in physics to demonstrate wave function, but they also show very well that different frequencies produce patterns with different forms. By juggling around with powders of different densities and by playing notes with a wide range of frequencies, it is possible to induce a pattern to take on almost any form. It is interesting, and perhaps significant, that Chladni’s figures most often resemble forms found in nature. Concentric circles, such as the annual rings in a tree trunk; alternating lines, such as the stripes on a zebra‘s back; hexagonal grids, such as the cells in a honeycomb; radiating wheel spokes, such as the canals in a jellyfish; vanishing spirals, such as those of shellfish — all these commonly occur. The study of this phenomenon, the effect of waves on matter, is called cymatics.

    The basic principle of cymatics is that environmental pressures are brought to bear in wave patterns and that matter responds to these pressures by taking a form that depends on the frequency of the waves. There are a limited number of frequencies involved, and nature tends to respond to these in predictable ways, by repeating a number of limited functional forms. The corkscrew pattern of an updraught of heated air is mirrored in the growth of a creeper twined around a tree and in the arrangement of the atoms in a molecule of DNA. The manta ray flows through tropical waters with muscular waves that run in lines across its broad, flat back like wind-blown patterns on the surface of the sea. Given the same problem, nature will usually find the same solution. It could not do this with such widely differing raw materials unless they were responding to identical pressures.

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