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Researchers find nature’s building blocks resemble cubes


We might not be living in a world made of Lego, but a team of researchers have discovered rocks and icebergs form cube-like shapes when they are broken down.

The discovery was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and drew comparisons to the Greek philosopher Plato, who saw the Earth’s building blocks as cubes.

According to sciencemag.org, the findings were made off the back of earlier work from Budapest University of Technology and Economics’ Gábor Domokos in 2006, who proved the existence of the ‘gömböc’ – a shape that has only one stable balance point.

Domokos’ team discovered pebbles and sand grades erode toward ‘gömböcish’ shape and further research showed that fragmenting an abstract cube into 600,000 fragments using a computer simulation also resembled cubic shapes.

This prompted the research team to hypothesise cubes might be a common feature of rock fragmentation.

Using an outcrop of mineral dolomite in Budapest, Hungary, the research team discovered that in a real world situation, cracks in a dolomite stone face also formed squarish shapes that resembled a cube – whether they had weathered naturally or been formed by dynamite explosions at the mountain.

They also discovered that breaking down materials under idealised conditions – such as a rock pulled in all directions equally – formed polyhedral pieces (cube-like structures).

The research team noted that many natural objects, such as mica, do not represent cubes as they were not in the idealised conditions they used.

“But in a statistical averaged sense, rocks are born as something that’s a vague shadow of a cube,” University of Pennsylvania geophysicist and co-author of the research paper Douglas Jerolmack said.

The findings, according to Jerolmack, have the potential for hydrologists to predict fluid flow through cracks in the ground for oil extractions and assist geologists in calculating the sizes of rocks that break off cliff faces.

Anne Voitgtländer, a geologist at the GFZ German Research Centre for Geoscience, told sciencemag a different view of the earth surface is needed to understand the study.

“You need to have this abstract theoretical view of earth surface processes to really dig into what this can mean,” she said. “It’s sometimes hard for geologists to understand the value of it, or to see where it applies.”

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