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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Friday, July 11, 2014

Pythagoras Would Exult: Another Crucial Cosmic Three

In my previous blog post Nature Seems to Love the Number Three, I pointed out that when we look at the most fundamental aspects of nature, we find that the number three seems to occur an unusually high number of times. Some examples are given in the visual below. We have cases where there are exactly three types of some fundamental part of nature: for example, three types of massive bosons, three types of neutrinos, and three types of subatomic forces. We have cases in which fundamental parts of nature are made of three smaller particles; for example, the fact that protons are made of three quarks. We also have a fundamental unit of charge (the electron charge) that is exactly three times greater than another fundamental unit of charge (the Down quark charge). Threes, threes, threes. Pythagoras (the ancient philosopher mathematician fascinated with the number 3) would be happy.

number 3 in nature

Now scientists may have found yet another example of a three in the fundamental layout of nature. The latest discovery is one that would really make Pythagoras jump for joy, as it involves his favorite piece of geometry: the triangle.

As PhysicsWorld.com reports: “Physicists have obtained important new evidence showing that the structure of the carbon-12 nucleus – without which there would be no life here on Earth – resembles that of an equilateral triangle.”

The carbon-12 nucleus is the nucleus of the most common isotope of carbon, the element on which earthly life is based. Every type of nucleus except the hydrogen nucleus consists of protons and neutrons. Scientists have usually thought of a carbon nucleus as being a bunch of protons and neutrons all stuck together, rather like the image below:



But apparently the carbon-12 nucleus consists instead of three little clumps arranged in an equilateral triangle, with each clump consisting of two neutrons and two protons. Below is a highly schematic diagram (the distance between the three clumps may be much greater).

carbon nucleus
Martin Freer/University of Birmingham


Nature apparently manages to preserve this perfect triangle, even though the carbon 12 nucleus is spinning madly.

The equilateral triangle has always been considered the simplest and most perfect shape in nature. Pythagoras and his followers would wax eloquent about the transcendental significance of equilateral triangles and the number three.

So does the discovery of a perfect equilateral triangle in the structure of the most fundamental nucleus of life have some deeper significance?