Published on October 25th, 2012 | by Chris Milton


Scientists Crack The Cauliflower Code

October 25th, 2012 by

A new paper published in the Institute of Physics’ New Journal of Physics reveals how scientists have defined a mathematical formula describing how cauliflowers grow.

The formula is based upon the science of fractals but goes beyond previous theories by being able to describe how the plant grows in three dimensional space over a period of time.


The discovery was initially made by accident whilst researchers were manipulating hydrogenated carbon on the atomic level using a process called chemical vapour deposition.

Some of the patterns produced looked like cauliflowers and so were referred to as “nano cauliflowers” by the scientists.

Then they realised that the similarity was too striking to to be coincidence, so they went out to the grocer’s and bought some real ones. These they studied and discovered that the work they were doing could predict a cauliflower’s shape over a period of time, albeit at an atomic level.

Further work produced a refined equation which describes a cauliflower’s three dimensional shape and, crucially, how that shape evolves through a period of time: in other words, how the plant grows.

The significance of the equation doesn’t stop at cauliflowers either, but can also be used to predict how other shapes throughout nature form and change, from clouds through to smoke from a campfire.

All of which leaves my head in something of a spin! If you’ve got a better head for this than me, then trundle over to the New Journal of Physics and enjoy the paper Universality of cauliflower-like fronts: from nanoscale thin films to macroscopic plants in full.

Image Credit: romanesco by wiegerrrr (some rights reserved)

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About the Author

is a seasoned sustainability journalist focusing on business, finance and clean technology. His writing's been carried by a number of highly respected publishers, including The Guardian, The Washington Post and Scientific American. You can follow him on twitter as @britesprite, where he's one of Mashable's top green tweeters and Fast Company's CSR thought leaders. Alternatively you can follow him to the shops... but that would be boring.

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