Spirals in the Human Body
As we have seen, the spiral is one of nature’s most common building blocks. Once nature has developed a system that works, it is reused and recycled in newly evolving and increasingly complex organisms. The mammalian body is constructed using the same material and the same building codes as the rest of matter in the universe. Thus, it comes as no surprise that spirals structures are present in our own bodies. Examples of spirals in the human body (and other mammalian bodies) include the spiral waves of blood flow, twisting curves in bones, and the corkscrew-like umbilical cord.
A few words from Norbert Wiener:
(mathematician and pioneer of cybernetics theory)
“Pattern is the ‘organized complexity’ from which all life was assembled and human beings ultimately emerged. That pattern of organization is the touchstone of our personal identity. Our tissues change as we live; the food we eat and the air we breathe become flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone... We are but whirlpools in a river of ever-flowing water. We are not stuff that abides but patterns that perpetuate themselves.”
(Conway, 2005. p 310.)
Cochlea: The Inner Ear
The next time someone whispers in your ear, think "cochlea."
The cochlea is the marvelous structure in the inner ear that is shaped like a snail shell and transforms sound into nerve impulses that your brain can process and interpret. The spiral shape of the cochlea helps the mammalian ear detect ranges of sound imperceptible to the uncoiled ear of reptiles. For more information on the cochlea and hearing ability, check out this article at Medical News Today
Spiral waves in the heart: Simulation of a dog heart modeled as an excitable medium. (Image: James Keener, University of Utah)
The umbilical cord is baby’s first Slinky. Our first experience of playing with a springy, twisty thing-a-ma-jig dates back to the womb. The umbili¬cal cord is coiled like a phone cord. Ultrasound images reveal that the primate fetus is active in the womb. These curious creatures play with the umbilical cord, twisting it with their feet and hands and sucking on it. The cord is both part of us and not part of us. In this way it provides a perfect bridge between our physical, animal bodies, and our second skin, the symbolic bodies we create out of words and stories. It is no wonder that the umbilical cord and navel are a rich source of material in myths across the globe.
What are the advantages of being coiled?
The umbilical cord is a lifeline for the growing embryo. It is a supply line that carries in fresh, nutrient rich blood and carries out waste material.
Like a phone cord, the twists in the umbilical cord give it the ability to contract and expand. Twists in the cord make it possible to wind more arteries into less space. The limited space in the womb makes it necessary for everything to squeeze in as tightly as possible. Addition¬ally, the cord needs to be strong enough to withstand the movements of an active fetus.
Ropes to the Past
Just as we can trace our genetic traits back to our ansces¬tors, we can also trace the words we use back to distant, long gone people. Language, like the our DNA, connects us to the past and is a rope we can follow back into the maze of time.
The English word navel comes from a Sanskrit root, nabilis, which means relationship and next of kin.
The word umbilical comes down to us through the Latin umbilicus, originally from the Greek omphilus.
The informal Greek word for belly button is bembix, which literally means whirlpool. Notice how bembix and bellybutton both have a cute sound, sort of like baby.
Nature’s Slinkys: Protein Molecules
Proteins build the organic world. They are the fundamental component of all organisms on earth. Everything alive is an expression of the creativity and ingenuity of protein construction.
The first proteins emerged about four million years ago. Since then they have woven themselves into an endless combinations of creatures. While most of the mass of the human body is water, the remaining mass consists largely of protein. It is estimated that the human body houses more than a million different types of proteins, each with a unique function.
Natural proteins are made from long chains of amino acids and normally occur in corkscrew formations. Many scientists are working to build artificial proteins. A group of researchers at Penn State are studying the mathematics of protein shapes. They built a computer simulations of all the mathematically possible configurations for combining protein molecules. In the process of building artificial proteins, scientists have tested every other conceivable shape. They concluded that the spirals found in nature are the best possible shape for protein molecules.
The spiral structure
of the umbilical cord
Photo by L. Nilsson