evolution

Candle smoke transitions from straight, laminar flow to confused, turbulent flow. How and why aren't well understood. Nigel Goldenfeld sees parallels between such physical processes and the evolution of life.
Gary Settles / Wikimedia Commons

Nigel Goldenfeld sees patterns everywhere in the natural world. The physicist from the University of Illinois is a member of its top-ranked Condensed Matter Theory group, and studies how patterns evolve in time, “be they snowflakes, the microstructures of materials, the turbulent flow of fluids, geological formations, or even the spatial organization of microbes.”

Some ferns have remained virtually unchanged for hundreds of millions of years. Others, like this seed fern, Neuropteris flexuosa, exist only in fossilized form.
James St. John / Wikimedia Commons

Chances are, you have a pretty good idea what a plant looks like. Roots, stems, leaves, flowers ... these are the things that make plants, plants. But it wasn’t always so.

Plants arose some 500 million years ago, and the fossil record is full of bizarre evolutionary dead-ends, as well as amazing innovations. For example, some extinct ferns looked much like modern ferns on the outside, but their insides appear jumbled. And then, there's the fact that early plants had no leaves.