From seashells to galaxies to this storm, Nature loves spirals.
This was a famous tweet by Commander Chris Hatfield, former NASA Astronaut from the International Space Station. His observation brings to mind numerous familiar images of natural spirals such as land snails, conches, marine Nautilus shells, flowers, and fern fronds.
A spiral formation requires a point from where successive convolutions wind from. The plane curves recede as it moves further away from the center. A helix is essentially a three-dimensional spiral. The most popular helical formation in nature is the DNA double-helix, the building blocks of life.
Human fascination for spirals
Cmdr. Hatfield is not the first human to recognize the many spirals that are found in the natural world. For mathematicians, the figure reminds them of the Fibonacci sequence of numbers that accurately represent spirals found in Nature — from flower buds and spiraling cacti to the spiral configuration of Pacific storm systems, and even spiral galaxies. This motif has been used by various ancient civilizations, and even the indigenous peoples of the world today use spirals in their rituals and symbolism.
As one fern frond dies, one is born to take its place.
This Maori proverb is closely tied to the spiral “koru,” a Maori symbol based on the unfurling fern frond and its meaning to their culture. The “koru” represents re-growth and sustainability and the continuity of life to the next generation. The koru is one of the most commonly used figures in the traditional tattoo art of the Maori.
The latest natural spiral formation observed in nature is a star with spiral arms. This young star called SAO 206462 was first observed by astronomers two years ago. The spiral projections were observed when the magnitude of the star’s brightness was dimmed to observe other heavenly bodies beyond it. What scientists saw through the telescope is a star that has spiraling gas and dust arms surrounding the central disc. The most popular theory for the spiral arms is that there are planets orbiting this star which create the spiral extensions.
The Richat Spiral
But, we don’t need to go beyond our solar system, not even beyond the planet to find huge spirals in nature. Astronauts on board the International Space Station, orbiting 386 kilometers overhead, routinely see a spiral formation in the Sahara Desert in Mauritania in West Africa called the Richat Spiral. The exact origin of this huge copper-colored collection of concentric rings is still not fully clear to geologists who study this geologic formation.
When people think about fossils, they mostly see in their mind’s eye images of gray spiral seashells embedded in ancient stone. These are ammonites and they are 240 million years old. Ammonite fossils are found the world over. And since they are rather common and their age generally known, ammonites are used by scientists in dating other archaeological fossil finds, such as dinosaurs.
Spirals are prolific in nature and they make some of the most fascinating and compelling natural beauties that we see everyday. All these images of spirals recall the circular flow and constant evolution that characterize life in this world.