Pattern hunting and decoding

Humans have always sought patterns, and used them to decode our Universe.

  • We saw dark turn to light, daily, cold turn to warm, seasonally. We decoded the patterns as earth rotation and orbit.
  • We see spirals and Fibonacci numbers in flowers. Decoding this, we find the golden angle and spatial optimization.
  • Hexagons appear in the structures of bees and bubbles. Scientists decoded this as optimization of materials.
  • Alan Turing looked deeply at spots and stripes in animals. Decoding the patterns led to a model of chemical morphogenesis.
  • Turing also looked deeply into the German war code transmitted during WWII. Decoding the signals contributed to victory.
  • Early Chemists saw patterns in the elements and drafted a periodic table. Later Chemists found the table correctly predicted new elements.
  • Scientists find patterns in quantum particles and used these to predict new particles. Scientists later discovered such particles.

In all these cases, humans hunted for patterns, decoded them to discover the underlying rules producing the patterns. Scientists usually begin by trying to describe in words what they observe. This is a process of decoding, translating into an intelligible language. For more precision, scientists use models, equations or rules that, when repeated, produce the patterns. Now, in the age of powerful and accessible computers, scientists very often code the rules of pattern formation to make computer models that can generate the patterns, leading to further understanding and predictions.

Pattern is itself a regularity and so should lead to prediction. But often we see a pattern before understanding much about it. If we can’t yet put it into words or describe the pattern with a model, then we haven’t yet decoded it (decoding by definition means translating into an intelligible language).  In the early stages, we tend to have mental models that are not yet verified. That is, our early pattern hunting may be very informal, like taking a walk in the woods. In the early stages, observation of the world give us clues about patterns, but it takes some effort to decode the patterns, that is translate the patterns we see into language and rules.

One should try to formulate statements about what one is seeing or, better yet, specify rules that when repeated may generate the patterns. Computers are good at repeating the rules, so we can go a very long way with a computer model of the pattern generation. Code the rules for a computer to repeat the rules and generate patterns. Coding is thus a part of the larger process of decoding and modeling. The computer models generate patterns of greater scope than we can perform with a calculator. In fact, the computer model generates patterns that predict beyond our initial observation.  Without models to indicate what patterns we are to look for, one can look in the wrong place or at the wrong scale, ask irrelevant questions, or perform the wrong experiments.

Ideally, our initial observations lead to a model that predicts what one should find in future observations, which may confirm the model, or dis-confirm the model and suggest revisions. So the process often repeats. A model  suggests specific places to look in the future, and often suggests conditions that we can experimentally manipulate to learn more. We might manipulate temperature, presence of chemicals, social environments, that we think affects the patterns we observe. The process can be roughly divided into pattern hunting, decoding and coding:

(1) Pattern hunting. Looking for a pattern in the natural or social world. Your observations are the the data.

(2) Pattern decoding. Finding rules that produce the pattern in the natural world. The rules are like a code of action.

(3) Pattern coding. Translating the rules into computer code, a computational model that should lead to successful predictions.

In sum, we hunt for patterns, try to decode the pattern into rules, then code the rules to produce a model. Along the way, as we decode what we perceive around us, we deepen our awe at the patterning of the Universe.