Applying the design filter to hexagons

Photo: Saturn North Pole hexagon, via NASA/JPL-Caltech, Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons.

Hexagons (at least macroscopic) are relatively rare in nature. The most common place we see them is in hives. One could argue that if bees are intelligently designed, for which there is plenty of independent evidence, then the structures they create are also intelligently designed. We could argue that hexagons are the most efficient packing spaces for the least amount of material. Of note, the design also provides more robust stress protection than square-shaped cells. We can see that the structural design serves a function.

Our propensity to infer design, however, must contend with other examples of hexagons in the non-living world. Some have been difficult to explain by natural law.

columnar basalt

When lava cools, it often forms polygonal-shaped columns, and hexagons are the most common shape. Many physicists have tried to figure out how this happens. There have been partial solutions, but nothing fully satisfactory. A paper in PPhysical examination letters reproduces the hexagonal columns with a mathematical model. The basic idea is summarized in a press release to APS Physics, as well as a great photo of a pyramid of hexagonal basalt columns at the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland. It is certain looks designed. How do we make a correct inference?

The surface of the cooling lava contracts faster than the still hot liquid below, creating a stress This is relieved through the formation of cracks. Martin Hofmann of the Dresden University of Technology, Germany, and his colleagues considered a uniform lava layer and calculated the energy released of different crack patterns. They found that in the early stages of cooling, when the cracks begin to appear at Random surface areas, the energy release is maximum if the cracks intersect at 90 degree angles. Butas the lava continues to cool and contract, and the cracks collectively begin to penetrate the mass, more energy is released per crack if they intersect at 120 degree angles. This transition of individual at collective crack growth changes the pattern from rectangular to hexagonal. The hexagonal pattern is then maintained as the lava cools, eventually leading to a network of hexagonal columns, similar to those seen in nature. [Emphasis added.]

Columnar basalt can be found in many places: in the Grand Canyon, in Yellowstone Canyon, in Zion National Park in Utah, in the Rockies, at Devil’s Postpile in the Sierra Nevada and, of course, in the Giant’s Causeway, as well as in other places around. the world. The uniformity of columns can be impressive, but they are rarely perfect. Many times other polygons are mixed with the hexagons.

Saturn’s North Pole Hexagon

A giant hexagon of clouds has persisted for decades at Saturn’s north pole. This formation has baffled scientists since its discovery by the Voyager spacecraft in 1981. It appears to be unique in the solar system, and it’s huge: 20,000 miles across and 60 miles deep. Saturn’s south pole also has a giant vortex, but not this polygonal shape. describes attempts to explain the feature:

Scientists have slammed on a number of explanations for the origin of the hexagon. For example, water swirling around inside a bucket can generate whirlwinds having holes with geometric shapes. However, there is of course no giant bucket on Saturn containing this gargantuan hexagon.

Voyager and Cassini have identified many Features of this strange hexagon which might help explain how it formed. For example, the hexagon dots rotate around its center almost exactly at the same rate as Saturn rotates on its axis. Additionally, a jet stream air currentmuch like those seen on Earth, flows eastward at about 220 mph (360 km/h) on Saturn, in a trajectory that appears to follow the outline of the hexagon.

We know that standing waves can hold nodes stationary with respect to their frame of reference. Something like this seems to be at work in Saturn’s polar winds. The article says that “the bizarre giant hexagon on Saturn can finally be explained”. A model made by a New Mexico planetary scientist replicates many of the observed properties of the hexagon.

Scientists performed computer simulations of an eastward jet flowing in a curved path near Saturn’s north pole. Small disturbances in the jet – the kind one would expect when jostling with other air currents – did meander in a hexagonal shape. Moreover, this simulated hexagon rotated around its center at speeds close to that of the real one.

The scenario that best fits Saturn’s hexagon involves shallow jets at the cloud level, study team members said. Winds below cloud level apparently help keep the hexagon shape sharp and control the rate at which the hexagon drifts.

This hexagon may not be permanent, since it is subject to disturbance by processes which have no particular reason to maintain it. A simpler case is observed in Jupiter’s Great Red Spot which seems to shrink after three hundred years since it was first observed.

Tiny non-living hexagons

Snowflakes are classic examples of ordered hexagonal-shaped structures. Other non-living hexagons include the ring structures of many organic molecules (at least as they are schematized by chemists). Some minerals also exhibit hexagonal packing. Most of us have seen soap bubbles form hexagonal interfaces when grouped together. An occasional hex can be found in mud cracks on a dry creek bed.

Hexagons produced by life

Bees aren’t the only hexagon-makers in the living world. Hexagons are found on the shells of turtles and in the ommatidia of the compound eyes of insects. Some species of diatoms form free-standing hexagons in addition to the more common circles, triangles, squares, and pentagons. We humans, of course, are great hexagon makers. Knowing their ideal packing geometry, we manufacture them into telescope mirrors, geodesic domes and soccer ball covers. Sometimes we create them just for their artistic value.

Appropriate inferences

If humans create hexagons by intelligent design, is that true of other living things that make them? And how should we distinguish design inference in living natural hexagons on Saturn or in columnar basalt? These questions help to understand William Dembski’s Design Filter.

It is not enough for something to be ordered. Casey Luskin discussed columnar basalt, responding to accusations from ID reviewers that the design filter generated a false positive. We also explained why snowflakes do not pass the design filter, despite their elegance and beauty. It is not enough, moreover, that something be rare or unique, like the hexagon of Saturn. The design filter prefers a natural law explanation if it can be found, or if the probability of the phenomenon occurring by chance is high enough.

But are we waiting indefinitely for a natural explanation? Planetary scientists have struggled for 35 years to explain Saturn’s hexagon. Shouldn’t we wait to explain hives and compound eyes without reference to clever design? Isn’t natural selection a natural law? (Actually, that sounds more like magic than a law of nature, but we’ll touch on that for the sake of discussion.)

Smart design is not an argument for shortcomings. This is a positive argument based on uniform experience. We have the experience of observing the melting of lava or the drying of mud forming geometric patterns. However, we have no other experience with hexagons forming on gas giants like Saturn. What are we doing?

The information conundrum

The short answer involves information. The hexagon on Saturn has no function. The columnar basalt says nothing. Snowflakes carry no message. They are mere emergent phenomena that are not so improbable, given the laws of nature with which we are familiar. The design filter works fine by rejecting a design inference for these based on probability and natural law.

All living examples of hexagons, on the contrary, are produced by codes. Beeswax will not form hexagonal cells by itself, and silica will not arrange in the geometric shells of diatoms. A numerical code made up of DNA dictates the placement of the ommatidia in the insect’s eye and the patterns in the turtle’s shell. Each of these structures performs a function and is the result of code-driven processes.

The coded information uses natural laws, of course, but it arranges the parts in hexagons for a functional purpose. In our uniform experience, we know of a cause that can generate codes or instructions that lead to functional geometries: intelligence.

There is a sense, however, in which we could make design inference for non-living hexagons like snowflakes, basalt columns, and planetary atmospheres. Certain features of the universe are so finely tuned that without them water, atoms, stars and planets would not exist. It takes a higher order design to have a universe.

One could even say that the elegant mathematics that allow us to describe hexagons are conceptual and not material, just like the aesthetic values ​​that allow us to appreciate them. So even if the design filter rejects a design inference for some of the single-level hexagons, the mere existence of atoms, natural laws, and beauty justifies a design inference in a larger context for each of them. Without spirit, we wouldn’t even debate these issues.

This article was originally published in 2015.

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