Monday, September 6, 2010
For as long as we’ve looked up into the sky and marvelled at the beauty and elegance of nature, there has been an unrelenting urge to understand its very essence.
The philosophical notion that natures secrets lay in the patterns of nature and numbers gained momentum in the early modern period as mathematics, science, art and religion grew strongly. The Golden ratio was highly recognised as a leading contender because of it's mystical like properties, it's abundance in nature and it's perceived mathematical beauty.
This spiritual aspect of numbers and patterns in nature was well dramatised in the 1998 film, Pi, which tells the story of an obsessed mathematicians search for a numerical pattern or equation that would explain the mysteries of the universe.
And the spirit is still alive in fractal cosmology which includes a rich mix of science, fringe science or metaphysical cosmology. Whether or not there is any thing to the theory of the universe having a fractal structure, when a fractal is found in nature where we didn't expect to see one, it's damn interesting.
A fractal is formed when pulling apart two glue-covered acrylic sheets.
So when a group of scientists discovered a fractal structure of oxygen atoms in their copper oxide superconductors there was cause for some excitement.
To understand why, I'll have to let you know a little of the background behind superconductors: materials that allow an electrical current to flow without resistance.
For years, only the conventional superconductors, those that operate at or close to zero kelvin and which are fully explainable by the BCS Theory were thought to exist. However, this view was blow apart in 1978 when the first superconductor to operate at significantly above zero kelvin was found. Ever since, physicists have attempted to unravel the mystery.
High voltage breakdown within a 4″ block of acrylic creates a fractal Lichtenberg figure.
So a team including Antonio Bianconi at the University of Rome exposed various samples of their lanthanum copper oxide material at their superconducting temperatures to X-rays in order to reveal the inside structure of the materials. What Bianconi found is that the oxygen atoms of the oxide did not form random positions as originally thought. In fact the placement of oxygen atoms formed both a low number of highly ordered regions and high number of lowly ordered regions: the hallmarks of a fractal pattern.
Furthermore and startling is that the higher the resolution the fractal pattern persisted at the higher the temperature the material was stable as a superconductor. That means, the fractal arrangement of atoms had a direct correlation with the physical properties of the material. How could this be?
Well superconductivity depends highly on the preservation of quantum coherence, which is usually preserved by the low temperatures. Bianconi speculates that the fractal distribution of the oxygen atoms in their materials make the ordered and disordered regions highly connected, which maximises the interference between the regions, preserving quantum coherence.
This is entirely exciting because now we have a direct correlation between the fractal structure of a material and its properties.
The early philosophers might have believed it was the fractals beautiful symmetry that is preserving the quantum coherency. In fact, that isn't incorrect, as the beauty we perceive is the symmetrical structure of the fractal its self. So from our perspective, it might be correct to say, the beauty is preserving the quantum coherence.
Modern scientists have long felt theories that possess an elegance are more likely to be proven true than those without. Einstein equations of the general theory of relatively have often said to be beautiful and were thought by many to be correct, long before they were proven for this sole fact.
So what is really going on with nature. Yes she is beautiful and yes she is structured. Is structure beauty and beauty structure? And what does this mean for science and art as two disciplines that both study the beauty and structure of nature.
There could just be a deeper mystical like connection between the two. But I'll let the philosophers amongst you think about that.