Saturday, November 7, 2009

Fibonacci and the Flower

If I had been any good at math, I might not now be spending my days in a small cubicle writing inspirational text for tourists, but rather calculating the cosmic rays in the universe, or formulating algorithms to calculate the allowable maximum weight and pressure on the truss of a magnificent bridge.

Instead as an ordinary wife and mother with a gardening habit, I'm left to ponder numbers as they figure in design. The threes and fives rule was only recently revealed to me by my aunt one day as she helped me arrange my tchotkes and object d'art around the house. Things just look better, she had told me, if they are grouped in threes and fives. I'm sure my aunt has never heard of the Fibonacci sequence, and neither would've I, except for this day job I have, which is forever increasing my knowledge (to the power of threes and fives, I might add).

Fibonacci is a fun guy to know about, largely because his name trips so swimmingly from the tongue--Fib-Ah-Nachee. (I recommend him as fodder for cocktail parties, but don't blame your guests if he's quickly replaced by topics more Rahm and Axelrod.) The guy would have been a Renaissance man, but for the fact that he was born in the 12th Century.

Stand by for a quick Wiki: "Fibonacci grew up with a North African education under the Moors and later travelled extensively around the Mediterranean coast. He then met with many merchants and learned of their systems of doing arithmetic. He soon realized the many advantages of the "Hindu-Arabic" system over all the others. He was one of the first people to introduce the Hindu-Arabic number system into Europe-the system we now use today- based of ten digits with its decimal point and a symbol for zero: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 and 0." (Where would we be without Wikipedia?)

The fabulous Fib also figured out a sequence of numbers, which fall in such an order that each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers--1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, etc. It's basically my aunt's threes and fives rule, but her name isn't as much fun to say and she didn't learn math from the Moors (Mopes?). In the garden, Fibonacci is everywhere. The petals on the plant, (count them on P.'s picture of a trumpet flower just before it bloomed) the leaves on a branch, the layers on a pine cone--even the garden junk that I buy at Target harkens back to Fibonnaci. If you count the scallops on my bird bath, 13, it's all Fibonnacci.

And when we were out in Yosemite this summer, I started to notice, too, that the tree tops that lined up in my field of vision from where I sat sipping wine on the porch of the old Wawona Lodge were referencing my pal, Fib.

So the question is this. Is Fibonnacci mysteriously magical or maddingly precise? On the one hand, he lends a DaVinci Code style conspiracy to nature, suggesting perhaps that flowers and leaves are referencing secret codicils or cosmic signals from the gods. Or more likely, he brings order to chaos. Plants are, in fact, selecting their petal or leaf arrangements to optimize their success for a life that requires water, sun, soil and nutrients. It's a physiological thing. Just like a bunch of school children told to line up in a tight space. They'd squirm themselves into the lineup, pushing and shoving until they each had enough room for shoulders and knees, so they could stand tall for the count down. And if the teacher was smart, she'd teach them the Fibonnacci,
0,\;1,\;1,\;2,\;3,\;5,\;8,\;13,\;21,\;34,\;55,\;89,\;144 \ldots. The Putterer

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