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Mathematics, Biology, and Awesome Wonder

If a picture is worth a thousand words, a well-done film is worth ten thousand or more. Several new short films effectively combine mathematics, biology, and awesome wonder with high production quality.

Cristóbal Vila’s Mathematical Artistry

Five years ago, Ann Gauger writing at Evolution News recommended a “must-see” film film by Cristóbal Vila, a gifted animator from Spain with a penchant for geometry. The film, “Nature by Numbers” (2010), has become a YouTube classic with over 5 million views and three thousand comments. Still a must-see, it shows in stunning beauty the connection of biological objects to the Fibonacci Series and Golden Ratio. 

In 2013, Vila added another masterful work to his YouTube site called “Lux Aeterna.” This film focuses on light — particularly sunlight — connecting the emissions of the sun and stars to the beauty and functional requirements of life on earth. This film would make a good companion to Michael Denton’s book Children of Light, and to Denton’s ID the Future podcasts about the specific properties of the solar spectrum that provide exactly the right energy — within very narrow requirements — for photosynthesis. Vila’s film does not explain the “coincidental” connections between biology and light in the way Denton does, but the film certainly makes for pleasurable viewing and for appreciating sunlight in its various manifestations during our most memorable moments of awe.

Now, Vila has outdone himself. He has released a new film that tops “Nature by Numbers” for emotional power. Connecting mathematics, biology and architecture, his film “Infinite Patterns” starts with a simple triangle and builds to the most magnificent representations of human and nature’s designs, from the honeybee in a flower to soaring spires of magnificent religious buildings. 

The biomimetic connections between nature’s designs and artificial designs is clearly shown in a seamless and powerful way. Notice and enjoy the tie-in to the structure of the double helix in DNA, and the bases that comprise it. Nobody around here knows Vila’s position on intelligent design, but his short film makes ID look awesome!

In both films, the geometric formulas that Vila includes in passing fly by on the screen too quickly to comprehend, other than to know they exist. They could be explained in more detail in a viewer’s guide to the film, should a mathematician like to take that up as a project. For math teachers or biology teachers, these films should be required viewing. They could easily inspire students to enter biology or mathematics as a career, hopefully with the attitude that such magnificent wonders could not happen by chance.

Illustra Media’s 2-Minute Wonders

The producers of The Privileged Planet, Metamorphosis, and Darwin’s Dilemma are reaching new audiences with short films free online. In their new series “2-Minute Wonders,” they take single subjects and pack awesome design stories into just a few minutes. These are easy to share, and satisfy the short attention spans of modern viewers who are inundated with things to watch. Parents cast into the role of home school teachers will appreciate these films that take simple, everyday living things and make them showcases of design science.

The latest release, “An Uplifting Story,” explains why dandelion seeds fly so far. There’s more to the story than it might seem at first sight, including mathematical optimization (see also, “Flight: The Genius of Seeds”). This self-explanatory film, beautifully rendered, is better viewed than described in words:

Other episodes in the 2-Minute Wonders series take stories from the feature-length “Design of Life” films and condense them into short featurettes:

“Packages of Life” is another release in the 2-Minute Wonders series that may be new to Illustra fans:

It tells the story of a simple pine cone — an unusual one with a very important role to play in forest ecology. For the math angle, be sure to notice the perfect spiral spin of its seeds, shown near the end. They look like miniature helicopters, by design. Again, watching may be even more effective than reading about it.

Photo: An image from “An Uplifting Story,” courtesy of Illustra Media.