Beautiful self-organized pattern: the huge hexagon at Saturn’s north pole

April 4, 2007 | By | 6 Replies More

Take a look at this beautiful movie image of Saturn taken by NASA: 

This nighttime movie of the depths of the north pole of Saturn taken by the visual infrared mapping spectrometer onboard NASA’s Cassini Orbiter reveals a dynamic, active planet lurking underneath the ubiquitous cover of upper-level hazes. The defining feature of Saturn’s north polar regions–the six-sided hexagon feature–is clearly visible in the image.

“Who built that hexagon on top of Saturn?” one might ask.  No one built it.  It’s a self-organized pattern.  And the area of the hexagon is large enough to fit four earths.

This is a very strange feature, lying in a precise geometric fashion with six nearly equally straight sides,” said Kevin Baines, atmospheric expert and member of Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “We’ve never seen anything like this on any other planet. Indeed, Saturn’s thick atmosphere where circularly-shaped waves and convective cells dominate is perhaps the last place you’d expect to see such a six-sided geometric figure, yet there it is.

But this striking pattern is merely one of the huge numbers of beautiful self-organized patterns one can find in our universe.  In Dynamic Patterns: the Self Organization of Brain and Behavior (1997), J. A. Scott Kelso describes the mysterious-seeming emergence of such dynamic patterns:

Patterns in general emerge in a self-organized fashion, without any agent-like entity ordering the elements, telling them when and where to go . . . [S]ystems that are pumped or energized from the outside are capable of producing . . . patterns and structures.  These are called open, nonequilibrium systems:  open in the sense that they can interact with their environment, exchanging energy, matter or information with their sourrounds; and nonequilibrium, in the sense that without souch sources they cannot maintain their structure of function. . .  The brain itself is an active, dynamic, self organizing system.

Kelso compared such patterns to the familiar water patterns one finds in a river:

Like a river whose eddies, vortices and turbulence structures do not exist independent of the flow itself, so it is with the brain.  Mental things, symbols and the like, do not sit outside the brain as programmable entities, but are created by the never ceasing dynamical activity of the brain.  The mistake made by many cognitive scientists is to view symbolic contents as static, timeless entities that are independent of their origins.  Symbols, like the vortices of a river, maybe stable structures or patterns that persist for a long time, but they are not timeless and unchanging.

Most people think of “patterns” as being static and designed–something you plan and build upon a skeleton of sturdy materials.  Actually, nature is bursting with patterns that are not designed and not “static.”  If the energy stopped pouring though such open systems (whether they be Saturn’s north pole or the human body), these intricate patterns will decay and collapse.  That patterns can self-organize is a counter-intuitive idea at first. Why would a pattern spontaneously arise as a result of someone blowing energy through a patternless system of thoughtless parts? Kelso’s illustrates the formation of dynamic patterns by pointing to the familiar formation of convection rolls in a heated pan of oil.

To explain the mechanisms underlying pattern formation, let’s use the familiar example of a fluid heated from below and cooled from above.  [This] allows us to illustrate the key concepts of pattern formation and change that will provide a foundation for understanding the emergence of biological order and change.  Take a little cooking oil, put it in a pan and heat it from below.. . . If the temperature difference between the top and bottom of the oil layer is small, there will be no large-scale motion of the liquid.  Notice the liquid contains very many molecules, and the heat is dissipated among them as a random micro motion that we cannot see.  We call this heat conduction.  As the driving influence [heat] increases, an amazing event called and instability occurs. The liquid begins to move is a coordinated whole, no longer randomly but in an orderly, rolling motion . . . all parts of the liquid no longer behave independently but are sucked into an ordered, coordinated pattern.

The convection rolls move in coordinated fashion:  any two adjacent rolls move in the same direction at their point of contact.  Who “designed” that?  No one.  That’s simply the way that nature fits together. But how does the first formed convection roll “decide” which way to roll? “The answer is Lady Luck herself.”  But once that first roll emerges, the rest of the rolls set up as a perfectly natural mechanism for releasing heat.  What worth repeating is that “no agent-like entity inside the system decides which direction the fluid must go.  Certainly, a decision appears to be mae, but no decision maker tells the fluid what to do.”  

When I first studied self-organization, I repeatedly stumbled on this idea of order arising out of “nothing.”  But there’s nothing spooky about it (this is not that I am not inspired by the process and the patterns):

Such spontaneous pattern formation is exactly what we mean by self-organization: the system organizes itself, but there is no “self,” no agent inside the system doing organizing.  A single Benard preparation might contain something on the order of 10 to 20 power molecules, each of which is subject to random disordered motion.  But once the rolling motion starts, even in parts of the fluid, all these molecules begin to behave in a coherent fashion.  The system is no longer merely a haphazard collection of randomly moving molecules: billions of molecules cool operate to create dynamic patterns synchronized in time, and extending over large distances and space many orders of magnitude larger than the molecular interaction. 

Where are other self-organized patterns?  A more challenging question is where they aren’t?  Kelso argues that “all structures in animate nature are actually dynamic.”  And don’t forget those dynamic patterns that are use other complex dynamic patterns as their own building blocks.  For example, cells comprising human bodies.  And here’s one that even creationists don’t choke on: relatively stable economic order, based upon the apparently haphazard activities of millions of human animals. The following description of a city is from Hidden Order: How Adaptation Builds Complexity, by John H. Holland (1995):

The mystery deepens when we observe the kaleidoscopic nature of large cities.  Buyers, sellers, administrators, streets, bridges and buildings are always changing, so that a city’s coherence is somehow imposed on a perpetual flux of people and structures.  Like the standing wave in front of a rock in a fast-moving stream, a city is a pattern in time.  No single constituent remains in place, but the city persists.  [W]hat enable cities to retain their coherence despite continual disruptions and a lack of central planning?

Beware, then, getting into the habit of noticing the extraordinary beauty and dynamic structure of the “things” that surround you (including other people).  You might begin to see human beings as vastly more complex versions of water flows.  It could be a compelling habit. 

As Kelso writes:   “What I find fascinating about these results is that they might reflect a ubiquitous tendency of nature to coordinate things.”

For further elequent explanations of self-organation, including precise yet accessible mathematical models, I also recommend Stuart Kauffman’s At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity (1996).


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Category: Meaning of Life, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (6)

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    Whenever I hear someone talking about patterns in nature, one of the first things I want to know is the extent to which the pattern is a product of our own human imagination. Humans have powerful imaginations, after all, and have been known to see all sorts of patterns. Images of Jesus on a scorched piece of toast ( or of the Virgin Mary on a stained highway overpass ( come quickly to mind. Amazingly, such "sightings" occur despite the fact that nobody knows what Jesus or Mary actually looked like. Likewise, the star constellations we see in the night sky, or the fanciful things we see in cloud formations on a summer afternoon, are merely figments of human imagination.

    Another caution to keep in mind is that some patterns result from our mechanical devices. Many of us are familiar with the hexagonal spots of light that can appear on photographs — the result of sunlight refracting through the hexagonal aperture of the camera lens, but which some people have mistakenly believed to be real objects in the sky; i.e., UFOs.

    This is not to say that patterns in nature don't exist, merely that we should be wary of attaching too much significance to them. Among my favorite such examples is the "Giant's Causeway" in Ireland, which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site because of the mythical legends attached to it. I would like to think our species is beyond such beliefs, but we can probably bet that some people, somewhere, will look at the hexagonal cloud pattern at Saturn's North Pole and see the work of their god.

  2. Dan Klarmann says:

    See Chladni Plates on YouTube for a nice example of fancy patterns from simple physics.

    Do you ever look up and notice bands of clouds? That's a similar effect. A very low pitch (fractional Hertz) standing wave played in the upper atmosphere.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    New beautiful photos of Saturn's hexagonal north pole.

    "The hexagon was originally discovered in images taken by the Voyager spacecraft in the early 1980s. It encircles Saturn at about 77 degrees north latitude and has been estimated to have a diameter wider than two Earths. The jet stream is believed to whip along the hexagon at around 100 meters per second (220 miles per hour)."

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    The hexagon reproduced in the lab.

    "Physicists Ana Claudia Barbosa Aguiar and Peter Read of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom wanted to see if they could recreate the hexagon in the lab."

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    Speaking of self-organized patterns, check out what happens when two smoke rings collide.

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