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Ltryptophan's avatar

How do numbers play a role in biological design?

Asked by Ltryptophan (10836points) May 15th, 2010

When I look out into a forest I see lots of things. What I don’t see is some sort of true relationship with numbers. Are numbers arbitrary? Does the physics of the universe really care about one, as opposed to two?

Where are the numbers hiding? Is our interaction with the world a math problem that we keep solving without consciously thinking about it?

Say I pick up a turkey sandwich (my favorite) and take a bite. I know lots of math and numbers exist in that situation, I just can’t understand how it can be so “quiet”?

I see that I have five fingers! I see that a leaf can have three points. But was this design really focusing on a number or rather practicality.

My vote is practicality. So is practicality where the numbers are at the forefront? Is it the internal counting of the decision ballot box that has the most to do with the situations I am thinking of?

I can’t imagine this is very clear, please feel free to help me get a grip on what I am asking!

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36 Answers

dpworkin's avatar

It probably has to do with symmetry. The Fibonacci series is one of the most well-known examples of mathematics reified in nature, but when carefully examined not even the most perfect Nautilus shell exhibits perfect congruence with the series.

Ltryptophan's avatar

How does this relate to physics too? Is the way energy corporealizes really ordered by numbers, or is it the same sort of happening as we see in biology?

Ltryptophan's avatar

Are we the only things really counting, or doing math?

Ltryptophan's avatar

Everything seems to be going about its business without stopping to do the math!

dpworkin's avatar

As far as energy goes, E=MC^2. That must tell us something.

Rarebear's avatar

There is a science called Complexity that studies highly ordered structures in otherwise chaotic systems, and how like structures can form from a highly different variety of substances. For example, look at the picture on the front of this book. You see a tree bark, a sunflower, and soap bubbles, all with a similar structure of more or less hexagonal sides. A honeycomb and beer bubbles are other examples of this. Why? Because it’s the most energy efficient state to produce stacking. It’s amazing how evolution and physics converge.

Fyrius's avatar

Here’s another thought: if you look at your fingers, do you even really see five instances of the same thing? Each finger is different. Even their counterparts on your other hand are not identical to them. Maybe the fact that they’re “five” is partially a result of the categories your mind creates.

But @dpworkin makes a good point. We can use mathematics to make concrete predictions about the real world that turn out to be true.
If you halve the length of a guitar string, it will produce the same note on a higher octave.
If you put twice as much sand of the same type in a bucket, the weight will be [weight(sand) – weight(bucket) x 2] + weight(bucket).
If you put twice as much water into a straight glass, the surface will be twice as far from the bottom.

But biology is messy. In biology no two things turn out the same. The fingerprint on your index finger is different from that on any other index finger in the world.
Maybe that’s why math seems less relevant to biology than to physics.

I’m rambling. Excuse the incoherence.

Rarebear's avatar

@Fyrius The fingerprint is indeed different from person to person, but it’s not random. Every person has a finger print, and everybody’s finger print looks more or less the same. Although the individual patterns are different, the overal general pattern is highly conserved.

dpworkin's avatar

The thing I like best about fingerprints is that they remind us we were once arboreal.

YARNLADY's avatar

You might do it all without even thinking, but you have the advantage of centuries of genius mathematicians behind you. No mathematical formula or number appears in nature, it all has to be discovered by mathematicians. Every word that stands for an object was invented by someone.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

no mind = no math
no math = no numbers

without an “I” no-thing adds up

hiphiphopflipflapflop's avatar

The basic forms with which mathematicians have built their fractured paradise (“God exists since mathematics is consistent, and the Devil exists since we cannot prove it.” – AndrĂ© Weil) have all been abstracted from nature. Perhaps it should not be such a great surprise that the resulting abstractions several generations on turn out to be useful (‘Unreasonable Effectiveness’) nor that nature herself knows a trick or two (‘Why You’re a Mathematical Genius (Along with Lobsters, Birds, Cats and Dogs)’).

LostInParadise's avatar

For the most part, we are the only ones who can do the math. I believe that there are some animals that can work with numbers up to 3, so that if they started with 3 things and now only have 2, they would realize that 1 was missing.

The laws of physics are expressed in mathematical terms, and even though nature does not consciously do the math, it is constrained to follow these rules. As has been pointed out, math is a little harder to apply in biology because of the complexity, but it certainly does have applications. Plants and animals have physical structures and there are rules for determining how large these can be. They gather energy and materials from their environment and these can be measured as well. The populations of organisms tend to fluctuate over time and there are equations for modeling this behavior.

pikipupiba's avatar

1+1=3 is a pretty popular biological calculation :)

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

@LostInParadise ”...math is a little harder to apply in biology because of the complexity, but it certainly does have applications.”

What’s amazing is, although that math may be difficult for humans to apply because of perceived complexity, it is being applied nonetheless by the genetic apparatus. The quaternary DNA programing code is consistently translated into the ternary RNA operating system. It’s a computer complete with it’s own closed loop communications protocol and protein manufacturing plant. Let’s not forget the legacy filing system of the pseudogenes.

But there is also math that biological design adheres to that isn’t so mysterious. When the new zygote forms perfectly intact with 23 chromosomes from each parent, becoming it’s own unique genetic formation with a total of 46.

Our DNA is also quantified at approximately 650mb of information. Yep… a human fits on one cd.

Ltryptophan's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies 650mb is the compressed version. When you decompress us the info grows exponentially!

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

@Ltryptophan

Information is a funny bird. It doesn’t actually “grow” because it’s not a physical thing. Information is represented… or expressed. The tool for representing Information is code.

The code can grow or shrink (compression). Code is always expandable or reducible to a factor of one bit. “I” represents who I am every “bit” as much as a decompressed 650mb binary. And you are correct to note the expansion, for the binary representation cannot fully encompass the quaternary/ternary logic capacity of DNA/RNA transcription.

Wave Genetics is new research that uncovers some additional components to the DNA code. It seems to also incorporate sound and light signals. It is being discovered as a holographic coding structure.

That’s some pretty wicked math no matter how we count it.

Fyrius's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies
”...additional components to the DNA code. It seems to also incorporate sound and light signals. It is being discovered as a holographic coding structure.”
That sounds suspiciously like one story arc from Start Trek TNG.
The story arc that hand waved the fact that all intelligent aliens look human.

dpworkin's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies is nothing if not credulous.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

Just passing along what I’ve read fellas. Perhaps if DNA is holographic, it only appears to be so for some researchers and not others. You know, just like Michigan J Frog.

mattbrowne's avatar

One good example is the real number ( 1+ sqrt(5) ) / 2 which is about 1.61803399 and also called

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_ratio

YARNLADY's avatar

@mattbrowne I was going to mention that one. However, we have to remember that nature does not do things ‘by the number’, but that humans discover what appears to be a pattern of some kind, and assign a name or number to it.

Ltryptophan's avatar

@YARNLADY right…this is what I am seeing. nature does no do things ‘by the number’

So what does it mean that numbers work then?

YARNLADY's avatar

I’m not sure what you mean by work. When I pick an apple, and you pick two apples, we now have a total of three apples. Did nature offer us the word one, two, and three, so we could add them up. Amazing isn’t it, 1 + 2 = 3, but where did that come from? maybe nature intended us to say # * ( % ~ and we got it wrong.

LostInParadise's avatar

What nature provides us with is the ability to put two quantities in one to one correspondence. If we can do this to two groups of objects and there is nothing left over than the two groups have the same number. If one group does have items left over then it has a larger number.

Fyrius's avatar

Nature is not one entity that does things.

LostInParadise's avatar

I was speaking metaphorically.

Fyrius's avatar

I wasn’t talking just to you. A general reminder to be careful when talking about nature “doing things by the number” and the like..

mattbrowne's avatar

There’s also the number 3 in particle physics. 3 pairs of quarks. 3 pairs of leptons. And 3 quarks that make up a proton or neutron. In stars 3 alpha particles fuse into a carbon atom.

Fyrius's avatar

@mattbrowne
And 3 GA’s on Fluther.

Here’s another thought: would these facts be any less interesting if it were a different number for each? It would still always be the same number of quarks in a proton, always the same number of alpha particles fusing into a carbon atom, et cetera. That sort of numeric consistency on itself should count for something (no pun intended), right?

mattbrowne's avatar

@Fyrius – Thanks! Well, there are 2 electrical charges and 4 elementary forces. What about the number 5? There’s a hypothetical subatomic particle called the pentaquark consisting of four quarks and one antiquark bound together (compared to three quarks in normal baryons). Well, then we got the 6 leptons. But what about the number 7? Where is it in nature?

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

I thought I heard somewhere that every cell in the body is completely replaced every seven years. Perhaps not for brain cells, I don’t know, I don’t remember, but technically, I think, no one on the planet is physically older than seven years at any one given time in their lives.

I could be wrong on this.

YARNLADY's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies Yes, I do remember reading that also.

Fyrius's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies
One note here. Unless there’s some direct connection between renewing cells and whether or not the earth has made a full cycle around the sun, I’d be reluctant to call that an instance of the number seven in nature.
Is there a reason why it takes seven cycles, and not six or eight? Or is it just that it takes so-and-so much time, which just turns out to be roughly seven years?

Rarebear's avatar

@Fyrius @RealEyesRealizeRealLies The number 7 there is just an approximation. Some cells last much longer, some much shorter.

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