The Mysterious Mathematical Principle That Links Bus Systems and Chicken Eyes

iStock
iStock

Math is everywhere—if you know where to look. Elegant equations can be observed in everything from flower petals to swirling galaxies. Universality, a phenomenon that strikes a balance between order and randomness, is one of these ubiquitous mathematical patterns that repeats itself again and again in the natural world. As Quanta Magazine lays out in the new episode of its In Theory video series, examples of universality can be seen in biology, quantum physics, and even public transportation.

In math, universality is what determines the spacing between solutions in a large matrix of random numbers. The numbers that go into the matrices may themselves be random, but when they interact, they produce a predictable outcome.

You can see the same principle at work in the world around us. Take bus routes, for instance. In 1999, a Czech physicist named Petr Šeba found the pattern in Cuernavaca, Mexico after observing how the city's bus system operated. Paid "spies" were positioned along the bus routes, and whenever a bus came, they'd let the driver know how long it had been since the last one passed through. Based on this intel, the bus driver would either slow down or speed up to maximize his passengers at the next stop. On paper, this method creates a barcode pattern of lines that appear to be placed at random but actually follow a set pattern.

That same random-looking pattern appears elsewhere, too, like in chicken eyes. While the color-sensitive cone cells in the eyes of some animals, like fish, are laid out uniformly across the retina, the cells in chickens' eyes look different. The cone cells are different sizes and look like they're scattered at random. But these cells are actually distributed according to the universality pattern—the first-ever instance of the pattern recorded in biology.

You can also see universality when you map out the energy spectrum of the uranium nucleus, the spectral measurements of sea ice, and elsewhere. To learn more about the math behind universality and how to spot it in the real world, check out the video below.

[h/t Quanta Magazine]

What's the Difference Between a Break and a Fracture?

iStock.com/belterz
iStock.com/belterz

A lot of people tend to think that breaking a bone is worse than fracturing it—or perhaps they believe it's the other way around. Others may think of a fracture as a specific kind of break called a hairline crack. However, as Arkansas-based orthopedic surgeon Dr. C. Noel Henley points out in the YouTube video below, these are all common misconceptions. A fracture and a break are actually one and the same.

“There’s no difference between these two things,” he says. “A fracture means the cracking or breaking of a hard object. One is not worse than the other when it comes to breaking bones.”

Some of the confusion might stem from the fact that the word fracture is often used to describe specific kinds of breaks, as in compound fractures, oblique fractures, and comminuted fractures. In all cases, though, both break and fracture refer to any instance where “the normal structure of the bone has been disrupted and damaged,”  Henley notes.

This isn’t the only common misconception when it comes to cracked bones. The idea that a “clean break” is a good thing when compared to the alternative is a myth. Using the scaphoid bone in the wrist as an example, Dr. Henley says a clean break in the “wrong” bone can still be very, very bad. In some cases, surgery might be necessary.

According to the BBC, other bone myths include the belief that you’ll be unable to move a certain body part if your bone is broken, or that you’ll instantly know if you have a fracture because it will hurt. This isn’t always the case, and some people remain mobile—and oblivious to their injury—for some time after it occurs. Even if you think you have a minor sprain or something seemingly small like a broken toe, it’s still a good idea to see a doctor. It could be more serious than you realize.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

Watch the Game of Thrones Cast Play 'Would You Rather'

HBO
HBO

Although it seems like time is moving painfully slowly toward the premiere of the final season of Game of Thrones, it seems as if we're getting daily reminders about the show's return.

This morning, the first official photo for season 8 of Game of Thrones was released by Entertainment Weekly. The publication also sat down with stars Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark), Maisie Williams (Arya Stark), Isaac Hempstead Wright (Bran Stark), and Kit Harington (Jon Snow) for a game of Would You Rather.

Even though the video doesn't really give us much insight as to what's to come for season eight, it's still fun to compare our answers to those of the stars of the show! EW asked the actors everything from "Would you rather: ride a dragon once or own a direwolf for life" to "Would you rather: hug a man with greyscale or kiss Walder Frey" and "Would you rather: have ​Daenerys or Cersei as an enemy?"

Game of Thrones is set to return for its final season in the first half of 2019.

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