The Message of the Seashell

Wondrous beauty can be found on the world's beaches, small and miraculous souvenirs of heaven's beauty.

BY: Ptolemy Tompkins

 

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Just as people throughout history have carried shells with them as keepsakes, so also have the world’s most creative minds used them as inspirations for their artistic or architectural creations. The ancient Greeks modeled their Ionic column on the spiral of a shell. Dante envisioned Earthly Paradise in the shape of a spiral reminiscent of the pink turns of a shell’s interior, and some of Blake’s engravings of heavenly staircases crowded with ascending and descending angels have a distinctly shell-like look to them. A shell lies at the source of Frank Lloyd Wright’s celebrated ground plan for New York City’s Guggenheim Museum as well. In the shell, Wright wrote, “we see the housing of a lower order of life, but it is a housing with exactly what we lack: inspired form. Certainly divinity is manifest here in these shells in their humble form of life.”

Even scientists, not always given to choosing the most poetic way of explaining things, have been taken aback by the inspired nature of the shell’s design. One of the shells most studied and remarked upon by scientists is the chambered nautilus of South Pacific seas. Actually not a snail, as most shell-producers are, but a cephalopod—the animal family that includes the octopus and squid—the nautilus uses its shell as both a house and a flotation device. Each new watertight segment the nautilus builds as it grows is a third larger than the segment before it, and conforms to a mathematical formula called the golden ratio.

For reasons completely unknown, the golden ratio appears in countless natural designs, from sunflower florets to the hexagonal patterns on the skin of pineapples. Structures patterned on the golden ratio are mysteriously pleasing to the eye, and the formula appears also in such human creations as the pyramids of Egypt, the Parthenon in Greece, and even Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa.”

As mysterious to science as the mathematical intricacy underlying the shell’s spiral structure is the persistent question of why cells take such a dazzling array of shapes and patterns. Bright and colorful patterns in animals often attract the opposite sex. But as the world’s shell-bearing mollusks don’t possess eyes sophisticated enough to register such patterns, this explanation doesn’t hold up. Vibrant colors can also be used by animals as warning signals: a ways of saying, “Stay away from me, I’m dangerous.” This explanation doesn’t apply to the shell either, however, because as nature writer Hilda Simon points out, Many snails with bright colors are coveted food items.” Science’s best stab at accounting for the shell? Simon quotes the famous Swiss zoologist Adolf Portman, who has said that shells might be the snail’s “self-expression.”

But whatever message the shells of the world present to other animals, the one they hold out to us is, to my mind, still best explained by what my father said to me that day on the beach at Sanibel. Like the ocean, life itself is turbulent and chaotic—full of winds and waves and unexpected storms. Yet behind this not always tranquil world, there lies another one, of beauty and harmony and heavenly perfection. It’s a world we get reminded of when, walking on the beach, we look down and see a little piece of it right at our feet.

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