From universe to “nanoverse,” one of nature’s most common structural features is “branching.” Networks of all kinds, physical and intellectual, are grounded in a pattern that chemists refer to as “child” (smaller channels) and “parent” (larger) branches.
At the human level we see it in living systems—the brain, arteries and veins, leaves and trees. Branching occurs in chemistry, for example, when carbon atoms are cross-linked to form the hard plastic used in safety glasses. Branching made computers and the Internet possible. Flying at night we can clearly see the extensive branching of highway systems. Railways branch. There’s branching in mathematics and geometry. And we speak of branch libraries and businesses with branch offices and facilities. The phenomenon occurs wherever there is connection and flow—cities and suburbs, electrical hubs with branches, water and sewer systems, streams and rivers, erosion, sand dunes and musical tunes. The list is endless. (Google has some wonderful images of branching).
Reflecting on the above image, I observe order within the chaotic, irregular lines. There isn’t one straight line, and no two of them are alike or even aligned. Yet there is cohesion, functionally and aesthetically. Systemically, I see the “parent” channels carrying water and nutrients to “child” and sub-offspring channels. The parents here appear to boarder areas in the same way roads provide boundaries for crop fields. In fact, a microscope would reveal that each of the barren looking “fields” in this leaf actually consists of a myriad of interconnecting and intercommunicating cells. For me, the intricacy and complexity of these connections and flow channels triggers a deep appreciation for the time depth that it took for evolution to arrive at a design pattern that’s economical, resilient and life-supporting.
One of the things I very much appreciate in this image is its quality of grace and harmony. Absent the color, I imagine a large community, like an extensive farm land with interstate highways running through it. Zooming in would show a heavily populated area with living, thinking, decision-making beings—individual cells that have unique needs, wants and aspirations relating to survival, development, personal space and relationships. And they function together in harmony, as a whole! There are no battlefields, no indication of intolerant, greedy or power-hungry cells. On the contrary, the visual evidence points to sharing and collaboration throughout the entire field. And these fields are are verdant.
Might this pattern and process, which appeared on the Earth about 130 million years ago and is still viable today, suggest something to us?
The vigorous branching of life’s tree, and not the accumulating valor of mythical marches to progress, lies behind the persistence and expansion of organic diversity in our tough and constantly stressful world. And if we do not grasp the fundamental nature of branching as the key to life’s passage across the geological stage, we will never understand evolution aright.
Stephen Jay Gould
About This Image
Title: Morning Glory Leaf
File: DC 1102
Throughout the summer months, an enormous Morning Glory plant climbs a wooden lattice in our back yard. One clear and sunny day I saw its leaves backlit and exclaimed, “Wow!” I had a choice photographically: get my camera and shoot the leaves outside, or take a leaf inside and shoot it under more controlled conditions.
I’ve been consciously looking for and photographing examples of branching for many years. So when I saw this example, particularly with the white lines being so prominent, I was hooked. To maximize the branching pattern, and minimize both the surface and texture, I set the leaf on a light-table and weighted it down with a piece of glass to smooth out the wrinkles. With a macro lens on a digital camera I composed and took the shot using only the backlight. This particular leaf was magnificent, about ten inches wide. To enhance the white lines, I increased the overall contrast and boosted the highlights even more in Adobe Lightroom.