Innovation Crunch

Innovation inspired anything! Innovation is always crunchy.

Nature Excels in Algebra

Even as the U.S. East Coast braces for the arrival of the bizarre infestation of cicadas that happens with clockwork precision every 17 years, we’re already seeing an infestation of cicada stories, everything from how to grill a cicada to how to make a refreshing cicada cocktail. And that’s even before the Internet Meme Machine gets started. This will be the first arrival of the 17-year cicadas during the modern social media era, so get prepared for cicada hashtags (e.g. #Swarmageddon), “insect porn” of cicadas mating on Instagram and round-the-clock tweets documenting their arrival. But here’s one thing maybe you haven’t thought of: Why every 17 years? Why not every 18 years or every 16 years or every 15 years? What’s so special about the number 17?

Innovation Blueprint

The answer has to do with the mathematical brilliance of nature, the power of prime numbers and the mysterious process of natural evolution.

In 1977, Stephen Jay Gould was the first to examine what was so magical about the 17-year reproduction cycles of cicadas and the potential link with the mathematics of prime numbers. In the famous essay “Of Bamboos, Cicadas, and the Economy of Adam Smith” (which appeared in Gould’s first book Ever Since Darwin), the legendary Harvard scientist looked for examples of other species that take excessively long periods of time between reproductive cycles for clues. He found a potential counterpart to the cicada in the flowering cycles of Japanese bamboo. Somehow, both bamboo and cicadas were able to “time” their episodes of sexual reproduction over extended periods. There was one species of bamboo, for example, that first flowered in China in the year 999 and continued to flower and seed every 120 years. Even when this bamboo species was transplanted to places like Japan and Russia, it still kept rigorously to its 120-year cycle.

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