Can one set of basic laws account for both the recurring themes and the infinite variety of nature's designs? When it comes to shape and form, does nature simply proceed in the easiest, most efficient way?
Complete answers to these questions are likely never to be discovered. Still, down through the ages, the investigation of symmetry and regularity in nature has yielded some fascinating and surprising insights. Out of this inquiry comes a specific branch of mathematics - the calculus of variations - which explores questions of optimization: Is the igloo the optimal housing form for minimizing heat loss? Do bees use the least possible amount of wax when building their hives?
In The Parsimonious Universe, Stefan Hildebrandt and Anthony Tromba invite readers to join the search for the mathematical underpinnings of natural shapes and form. Moving from ancient times to the nuclear age, the book looks at centuries of evidence that the physical world adheres to the principle of the economy of means - meaning that nature achieves efficiency by being rather stingy with the energy it expends. On almost every page can be found historical discussions, striking color illustrations, and examples ranging from atomic nuclei to soap bubbles to spirals and fractals. Without using technical language, Hildebrandt and Tromba open up an intriguing avenue of scientific inquiry to an uninitiated readership, showing what can be discovered when mathematics is used to investigate the natural world.
Stefan Hildebrandt is currently professor of mathematics at the University of Bonn.