Straight Lines in Nature
Why are so many natural or man made things curvilinear -
How come I don't see many straight edges in nature?
This is a very good question, and I do not think I can do justice to it in
a short reply and without thinking more about it. I share with you some
First, the straight line is a very specific kind of a line and I do not
think that it is particularly over- or under-represented in nature. In
fact, if many of the "natural" lines were straight, we would then wonder why?
Secondly, we need to ask what we mean by a straight line. I assume you are
referring to "visually" straight lines. In that case, your perception and
perspective are also important. The trunk of a tree may look straight to
us at a distance but can be quite irregular as you look closer.
A more general and physical explanation for the shape and patterns in
natural (and man-made) things could be given as follows.
The physical, structural, and functional attributes of natural things have
evolved over time, over millions and billions of years, as a consequence of
their interactions with their natural environment.
The outcome of these interactions, in most instances, is anything but
random. There are laws governing these interactions. So, not only the
shapes but also the properties and functions are determined by the
governing laws. So, to ask why something has a peculiar shape or function
is asking, "what relevant laws govern its creation, evolution, and function?"
Laws of nature are peculiar and often elegant. We can discover them but we
have no clue why they are there. We can find "what and how" they are and
not "why" they are. Underlying many of these laws are others, such as the
conservation laws. These, to me at least, seem to be nature's clever way
of managing itself.
In summary, we can say that things have the shapes they have because their
existence and evolution, by necessity, follow certain laws that dictates
those preferred shapes. But we do not know why those laws are the way they
For example: Why are tree leaves mostly green? Why is the sky blue? Why
are the pebbles on the shore round? Why is raindrop round and not square?
Why are soap bubbles round and not cubic? And so on.
The answer to these are, respectively, chlorophyll, light scattering, wear
by collision and water action, and surface tension (for the last two.) I
am pointing to the governing laws to explain the shapes. But in the final
analysis, I can say how they are but not why. The "why" question, I think,
is not one that science can answer at this time. It is more of a
philosophical and theological question and beyond my knowledge.
Dr. Ali Khounsary
Advanced Photon Source
Argonne National Laboratory
Because there are a zillion ways to be crooked but only one way to be
straight. Nature tries everything, so if you take random samples of
things Nature has tried, you get a straight line once every zillion
samples. And you don't see precisely the same crookedness any more
frequently than you see straight lines.
However, if you look closely at crystals of pure substances (or of
precisely the right mixtures of the right different substances), you'll
see lots of straight edges. Nature's not all that big on pure
substances, though, because there are a zillion ways to be mixed...
Nature does have a lot of straight lines especially when discussing light
direction and crystalline faces. Slate is a rock that has straight lines due
to its crystalline structure. However, most living things are made up of
organic compounds that are polar (unsymmetrical if you like) in nature and do
not form "straight lines" in their compound bondings. If Nature was inorganic
(bonding in patterns to a degree), we'd probably see more "straight lines".
A chemist would complain like crazy to my above explanation!! I have over
simplified it all a bit!
Furthermore, organization takes energy and forming straight lines would be
organization to a degree. Man makes straight lines out of nature, but it
takes energy to do so. Nature is just plain lazy!
Click here to return to the General Topics Archives
Update: June 2012