Notes From A Queer Engineer: My Top Five Beautiful Things in Science

Autostraddle 5th B'day_Cats plus changes_Rory Midhani_640px (1)
We’re celebrating Autostraddle’s Fifth Birthday all month long by publishing a bunch of Top Fives. This is one of them!

1. Fractals

Although self-similar patterns have been around forever, the term “fractal” wasn’t coined until 1975. Mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot created the word from the Latin fractus, meaning fragmented and irregular. Appropriately, fractals are non-regular geometric shapes that have the same degree of non-regularity on all scales. They appear as “worlds within worlds, ” where greater complexity is revealed as the pattern is enlarged.

Via Fractal Foundation

Via Fractal Foundation


Via Fractal Foundation

Via Fractal Foundation

Once you know what to look for, you start to notice these trippy patterns everywhere. There are fractal patterns in broccoli, lightning, blood vessels, river networks, neurons, nautilus shells, frost patterns… the list goes on. But it makes a lot more sense in pictures than in words, so I’ll stop talking now and just show you some!

Via Artefactos0618

Fractal fern. (See how each of the smaller branches are similar to the larger fern shape?) Via Artefactos0618

Lightning over Roswell, New Mexico Via AP Photo/Roswell Daily Record, Mark Wilson

Lightning over Roswell, New Mexico Via AP Photo/Roswell Daily Record, Mark Wilson

Canada via Paul Bourke

Aerial of Canada via Paul Bourke

Romanesco Via Fourmilan Fractal Food

Romanesco broccoli via Fourmilan Fractal Food

2. DNA

Unlike fractals, DNA is not very visually appealing – it actually looks like a string of snot – but the amount of information it contains is totally bonkers. DNA is like Hermione’s charmed handbag, except that a) it’s real, and b) the cargo it carries is even more important.

3. The Moon

As a large, glowy object lighting up the night sky, the moon is already pretty damn cool in my book (melancholy singing mice or not). But have you heard about the many ways this celestial body effects life here on Earth?

The two sides of the Moon. Via LRO / Universe Today.

The two sides of the Moon. Via LRO / Universe Today.

For example:

  • For a long time scientists believed that without the moon’s stabilizing influence, harsh seasonal excursions would have prevented complex life from evolving. Recently this theory has been called into question; however, it remains undisputed that moon-induced ocean tides play an important role in the food chain and the intertidal ecosystem lineages that ultimately gave rise to human beings. What I’m saying is: no moon, (possibly) no people.
  • Many animals have biological processes linked to lunar and tidal cycles. The entire species of Pacific palolo worm, for example, breeds on a single night in autumn when the moon is in its last quarter. The Samoans have developed an intricate monitoring system of this process, involving close observation of flame tree flowers, whose emergence appears to be synchronized one week prior to the palolo’s mating ritual. On the day the engorged, swarming worms rise to the surface, waiting islanders scoop them up in masses to feast on.
  • Efforts mounted to get to the moon propelled countless technological advancements, but my favorite, by far, is desktop computing. During the space race, NASA drove the miniaturization of information technology crucial to the development of modern computers. The 70-pound onboard Apollo Guidance Computer developed at MIT made a safe landing on the moon possible in 1969. Today, my trusty 3-pound laptop helps push messages straight from my brain to your eyeballs.

Pretty neat, right?

Moon walk

Aww yeahhh

4. Elemental Origins

As Cosmos’ Carl Sagan famously put it, “The earth and every living thing are made of star stuff.” I’m super psyched about the show’s reboot with Neil deGrasse Tyson, and we should all be super psyched about the origins of the elements. In short: everything can be traced back to the stars.

Here’s the answer deGrasse Tyson gave in a 2008 interview with Time magazine when he was asked to share the most astounding fact about the universe:

5. The Scientific Method

I love puzzle solving and I love standard processes, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I’m a big fan of the scientific method (and its close cousin, the engineering method).

Via Science Buddies

I also love that when you input “scientific method” to Google image search it’s an insta-rainbow pride parade. Via Science Buddies.

What’s so fantastic about the scientific method is that it breaks the world down into a series of solvable puzzles. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn writes,

Bringing a normal research problem to a conclusion is achieving the anticipated in a new way, and it requires the solution of all sorts of complex instrumental, conceptual, and mathematical puzzles. The person who succeeds proves themself an expert puzzle-solver, and the challenge of the puzzle is an important part of what usually drives them on. … What then challenges them is the conviction that, if they are skillful, they will succeed in solving a puzzle that no one before has solved or solved so well.

Exactly. (Okay, it was originally written “man” this, “him” and “he” that. I fixed it; not sorry.)

As Kuhn points out in his work, there are limitations to the scientific method  — namely, that progress is almost always limited to incremental gains within an established paradigm, and that this model resists revolutionary change. That criticism is fair. But it doesn’t negate what I  love most about science, which is this: at its core, science is a willingness to believe that the universe is knowable. That if we ask the right questions and follow the evidence, we can get to the bottom of how things are, and why. That we can know the truth about everything.

That’s about the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.

Notes From A Queer Engineer_Rory Midhani_640

Notes From A Queer Engineer is a recurring column with an expected periodicity of one month. The subject matter may not be explicitly queer, but the industrial engineer writing it sure is. This is a peek at the notes she’s been doodling in the margins.

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Laura Mandanas

Laura Mandanas is a Filipina American living in Boston. By day, she works as an industrial engineer. By night, she is beautiful and terrible as the morn, treacherous as the seas, stronger than the foundations of the Earth. All shall love her and despair. Follow her: @LauraMWrites.

Laura has written 210 articles for us.


  1. My favorite thing in science (well really math) is how an infinite sum can converge to something finite. Also that imaginary numbers aren’t real, and werent discovered for any physical purpose but are still very useful in physics.

    • I can still remember my awe at seeing a sum to infinity being finite….. It was a beautiful moment

      • I love the paradoxes it creates. It saddens me that so many professors use Xeno’s paradox as an example because there are much better ones out there. My favorite is Gabriel’s horn. A horn has infinite surface area but finite volume. You would think because volume is linked to surface area that either both converge or diverge and yet…

    • I admit, I’m not much of one for calculus. (Sacrilege!) But I will look this up, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on why this is beautiful!

      • I’ll throw my opinion in and say the reason I think it’s beautiful, which is the common reason as far I know, is that it relates three of the most important and complicated numbers in math in a way that’s breathtakingly simple. There’s really no reason to expect that it should work either. e was discovered when looking for a function that is its own derivative, pi comes from circles, and i is just plain weird. The fact that they can go together in a way that gives a perfectly normal number like -1 is just SO DAMN ELEGANT.

        It’s also a super handy tool, which I appreciate.

        • Euler’s identity (e^ipi = -1)becomes less interesting by itself when you realize it’s not special but part of a complex number plane in exponential form. However the fact that z=re^(itheta) is extremely cool.

          • That is true, and it certainly does open a whole world of strange and awesome things that happen on the complex plane. I will freely admit that complex analysis is my weakest area of math, but everything that I have seen is interesting.

        • Ooh, I agree, that’s really beautiful and awesome! Thank you so much for sharing that with me!

  2. DNA is super cool. I’m taking an applied combinatorics class on DNA this semester, and it’s been awesome to see all the ways you can model DNA as a mathematical object.

    Also, Neil deGrasse Tyson is the best. I love listening to podcasts of old episodes of Star Talk Radio.

    Basically, you have great taste.

  3. Fractals are frickin’ beautiful. Im on team fractal and team we are all made of star stuff. All of them, but fractals especially :)

  4. Phyllotaxis is my personal favourite science thing in combination with the golden ratio and all that Math/art/music intersectionality jazz. It’s amazing.

  5. What I learned in physics:

    Attraction only depends on magnitude and distance.
    -Electromagnetism Law

  6. yes to the scientific method! I can’t write a work report without using it, such a great systematic flow.

  7. wow this was super science-y but I didn’t break out in hives or have a panic attack! does this mean science can be fun?

  8. wait laura i just developed a HUGE crush on you. poetic scientific facts are my favorite and this list is just beautiful.

  9. Fractals are the coolest!!
    Studying virology, the symmetry of viral capsids is astounding and beautiful. I love icosohedrons. Proteins create the most amazing structures.

  10. I know I’m late on this but:
    The sum of all natural numbers is -1/12. Now that’s just amazing.

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