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]

The Palos Verdes Blue: The Beautiful Butterfly That Wasn't Extinct After All

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wikimedia // Public Domain
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Terrible extinction news frequently makes the headlines, but sometimes, conservationists declare defeat too early. The Palos Verdes blue (Glaucopsyche lygdamus palosverdesensis) is one such example: Presumed extinct in 1983 after it seemed to vanish from its habitat in California's Palos Verdes Peninsula, it was discovered flitting among the grass in San Pedro again 11 years later.

Aside from coming back from the edge, the butterfly is notable for fuzzy wings that look brownish when closed, but a stunning silvery blue once they open up. Today it's still listed as threatened, but there's a captive breeding program to help make sure the beautiful species never goes missing again. Learn more—and see the butterfly up-close—in the video from Great Big Story below.

Why Cutesy Names Are the Most Effective Way of Getting Your Cat's Attention

iStock
iStock

When you were naming your cat, you probably didn’t consider your feline friend’s hearing range. But according to Vancouver, Canada-based veterinarian Uri Burstyn, you probably should have—at least if you want your cat to pay attention when you talk to it.

According to Dr. Uri, the name he goes by in his adorable YouTube videos, Felix isn’t a great cat name. Nor is Garfield. But Fluffy? A great choice.

Cat ears are finely attuned to high-pitched noises. Since most of their prey communicate at high frequencies—think mouse squeaks and bird chirps—cats are not as good at hearing low-frequency sounds. Ideally, you want your cat’s name to end in a high frequency, since that’s the kind of sound cats hear best and naturally pay attention to.

For human speech, that basically means that it should end in an “eeeee” sound rather than a consonant. Grumpy Cat? A bad name. Just “Grumpy?” Perfect. That's why "kitty kitty" works pretty well to get a cat to pay attention or come toward you. It's a squeaky sound.

Luckily, many nicknames in English tend to end in an ie or a y, so you probably already have a cat-friendly name for your pet waiting in the wings. Now you know why your cat is more likely to respond to your high-pitched, baby-voiced nicknames than its full name.

Enjoy Dr. Uri's explanation, and his helpful demonstration with his noble friend Lancelot, in the video below.

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