Soft power

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Krisztina Regős

Grass seeds. The waves that the tide etches in sand. Our own muscle cells. The stacked chambers of seashells. All of these, Hungarian and Belgian mathematicians say, are examples of an infinite class of shape they have just mathematically defined, and call “soft cells”.

Imagine pinching a circle in two places, twisting it however you fancy, and letting go—you’re left with a curved shape that has two sharp corners. That’s a soft cell.

Lead author Gábor Domokos has made a career out of noticing and naming the geometry of nature. As he and co-authors write in a new paper, the human quest to find “tilings”—ways to fill space with shapes that fit snugly together—began 10,000 years ago with the advent of masonry walls. Since then, we’ve focused on artificial shapes that have multiple sharp corners: triangles, squares, hexagons. But, they note, that nature has been tiling space for much longer than we have, and uses shapes that are curved, with “few, if any, sharp corners”.