The Mysterious Mathematical Principle That Links Bus Systems and Chicken Eyes

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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]

Watch 10 Celebrities Read Edgar Allan Poe’s "The Raven"

by James Carling, Urbancanvas // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
by James Carling, Urbancanvas // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven,” published in 1845, has been inspiring fellow artists for nearly 175 years. From Christopher Walken to Neil Gaiman, here are 10 celebrities putting their own spin on Poe's iconic verses.

1. Neil Gaiman

Literary wunderkind Neil Gaiman is putting his love of all things creepy to good use this year by teaming up with Worldbuilders—a self-described "geek-centered nonprofit supporting humanitarian efforts worldwide"—to assist their group in their fundraising efforts by staging his own candelit reading of Edgar Allan Poe's classic poem.  

2. Christopher Walken

Everyone does a Christopher Walken impression, but rarely do they come close to matching the unique inflection of the real deal. For the Poe tribute album Closed on Account of Rabies (1997), Walken recited the classic narrative poem as various haunting sound effects moaned and whistled in the background.

3. James Earl Jones

There are very few actors whose voices are as iconic as James Earl Jones's. From Darth Vader in the Star Wars films to Mufasa in The Lion King, you always know when the veteran thespian—who had a stutter as a child—is behind a character because of the deep, theatrical boom of his voice.

4. Vincent Price

The legendary actor—and the creepy voice in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”—needs no introduction to horror fans (or to those who remember the old Tilex mildew remover commercials). The clip above isn't the only time that Price was recorded reciting Poe’s poetry. If you want more, check out the hour-long Halloween special An Evening Of Edgar Allan Poe (1970), during which Price reads “The Tell-Tale Heart,” "The Sphinx," "The Cask of Amontillado," and "The Pit and the Pendulum."

5. Sir Christopher Lee

Known to younger generations as the actor who played Saruman in The Lord of the Rings franchise, the late Christopher Lee has more than 270 acting credits to his name, dating all the way back to the mid-1940s. Of those credits, Lee has lent his skills and voice to numerous legendary characters, including Hamlet, Sherlock Holmes, and Dracula several times over.

6. Stan Lee

If Stan Lee hadn't gone into comics, he could very well have been a voice actor—at least based on his 2008 reading of "The Raven," a poem he said he at one point had memorized.

7. William Shatner

To the world, William Shatner will always be Captain Kirk. The character is so closely tied to the actor’s personality that it’s hard not to see them as the same person, which makes it harder to watch—or take seriously—a young Shatner reciting “The Raven” on stage during Dick Clark’s Magical, Musical Halloween (1983).

8. John Astin

Known primarily for the role of Gomez Addams in the television show The Addams Family, John Astin’s eyes and mustache add to the creepiness (and unintentional humor) of his dramatic reading of "The Raven," as he stands in full costume.

9. Basil Rathbone

Many recordings were made of this Shakespearean stage actor and star of many a Sherlock Holmes movie as he read the works of authors like Oscar Wilde, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and, of course, Poe. In the recording above, his voice fluctuates from calm and almost musical to loud and quite terrifying as things begin to escalate between man and bird.

10. Tay Zonday

If you're familiar with the Internet at all, then you probably know Tay Zonday. The deep-voiced YouTube celebrity rose to Internet fame with his song and music video "Chocolate Rain" back in 2007, and he has been using his natural voice to delight and unsettle audiences ever since.

An earlier version of this story ran in 2015.

28 Amazing Facts About Theodore Roosevelt

Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy loves Teddy Roosevelt. Like: really, REALLY loves Teddy Roosevelt.
Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy loves Teddy Roosevelt. Like: really, REALLY loves Teddy Roosevelt.
Mental Floss

If there is one thing to know about Teddy Roosevelt, it is that you can never know too many things about Teddy Roosevelt. The nation's 26th president was also an author, rancher, big game hunter, martial arts expert, and savage insult machine.

Join Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy as she breaks down some of the most fascinating aspects of Roosevelt's life, then be sure to check out History Vs., our new podcast (also hosted by Erin, a noted TedHead), which explores the little-known stories behind some of history's greatest figures. (First up: Teddy Roosevelt. But you probably knew that.)

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here!

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