Formed by bees heating up and rocks cooling off, hexagons inspire modern design both aesthetic and functional. Read on to experience how the 6-sided polygon interweaves physics and life, process and pattern, past and present, in a dizzying, epoch-spanning array of forms created by function.
1. Maximum honey, minimum wax.
The honeycomb is an elegant design solution that allows bees to store the maximum amount of honey with the minimum amount of wax. In this quick video tour of the evolutionary math behind the honeybees’ “modern” design, TED ED describes how the hexagon beat out circles, triangles, squares, and pentagons as the most elegant, and efficient, answer to the honeybees food-storage question.
No honeybee ever “did the math” to determine precise angles, nor do contemporary honeybees calculate angles. Over time, honeybee bodies evolved to automatically deposit wax in hexagonal shapes by internally warming and cooling in a pattern that would perfectly shape the flow of wax! According to a study posted at AskNature.org:
“Here we show that honeybees neither have to measure nor construct the highly regular structures of a honeycomb, and that the observed pattern of combs can be parsimoniously explained by wax flowing in liquid equilibrium. The structure of the combs of honeybees results from wax as a thermoplastic building medium, which softens and hardens as a result of increasing and decreasing temperatures. It flows among an array of transient, close-packed cylinders which are actually the self-heated honeybees themselves.”
Pirk, CWW; Hepburn, HR; Radloff, SE; Tautz. 2004. Honeybee combs: construction through a liquid equilibrium process?. Naturwissenschaften. 91: 350-353.
Geologists note that the hexagon is also a shape that worked for prehistoric coral, as shown in the fossil at right.
Living between 460 and 273 million years ago favosites coral featured tightly packed hexagonal calcite columns that sheltered marine polyps who extended tentacles to extract prey from the seawater around them.
Small gaps in the calcite walls allowed the polyps to share nutrients, while the hexagonal walls allowed individualized organisms to stay as closely packed with minimal structural material.
Stumbling upon perfectly geometric columns of rock can only be described as magical. Even the most austere scientist might find herself (or himself) gaping in awe at the flawless shapes and wondering if men or Gods carved those immaculate columns.
In a fascinating twist of physics, hexagons are also formed by igneous rocks cooling off!
When objects contract, they often crack or fracture. When contraction occurs at centers which are equally spaced, then a hexagonal fracture pattern will develop. If the contraction is not evenly spaced, then other geometries of fractures, such as 5-sided or 7-sided fractures, may occur.
Quotes from American Geophysical Union Georneys blog
Subsisting, as many of us do, on a daily diet of angled buildings and neighborhood grid patterns, can lead to a default definition of humanity as fundamentally square. We navigate right angles from our first steps to the bathroom in the morning to the four way stop we cycle through on the way home from work. If our built environment is an expression of who we are as a species, we might assume our kind are markedly linear and composed of angled planes.
Shinichi Maruyama‘s nudes strip the angles off our bodies, documenting that as we move, we embody patterns that flow deeper than the squares that define modern culture. His composites of 10,000+ stills of human dancers fluttered through design and photography blogs late in 2012, earning thousands of “likes.” But what is it, exactly, that so many of us like about these images?
The biophilia hypothesis states that we have an innate love of other living things. It follows that we also have an inherent fondness for the patterns that give rise to those living systems. The circle may be one of the most pervasive shapes in our universe, and Maruyama’s work exposes that shape expressing itself through our bodies. We see that even as we are moving through the grids of our culture, we are drawing circles with our limbs that even conscious effort could not disavow. We are always tracing something that neither begins nor ends, down beneath our clothes, without need of conscious thought.