Why is The Hexagon Everywhere? All About This Seemingly Common Shape

Fascinating facts about the most interesting geometrical shape that we find almost everywhere around us.
Kashyap Vyas
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In basic terms, a hexagon is a simple shape with six sides. But this seemingly simple shape is nothing less than a wonder. You might even be surprised to know how hexagons are present in everyday life. 

For example, the cells of the beehive have a hexagonal shape, as does the molecular structure of Carbon.

“The force that makes the winter grow its feathered hexagons of snow and drives the bee to match at home. Their calculated honeycomb is an abacus and rose combined. An icy sweetness fills my mind, a sense that under thing and wing lies, taut yet living, coiled, the spring.” - Jacob Bronowski

Let us see why the hexagon shows up so often in nature.

Saturn’s own hexagon

Why is The Hexagon Everywhere? All About This Seemingly Common Shape
Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Kevin M. Gill

Let us start with something out of this world, literally! If you were to observe the North Pole of Saturn from space, you would see a cloud formation over the planet.

However, this isn’t any ordinary cloud, and you can see why when you pay attention to the cloud's shape. Yes, it is a hexagon.

Why does a cloud resemble the shape of a hexagon? Scientists can’t answer that question, and although there are some theories, none have been verified.

Want to know another piece of interesting information? Each side of Saturn’s Hexagon is longer than the diameter of Earth!

Water Spinning At High Velocity

This is an extension of Saturn’s hexagon. When you rotate water in a container at a very high speed, the inner hole can take a hexagon shape. This might be the key to unlocking why the clouds at Saturn's pole take the hexagon shape.

In one experiment, the Researchers at the Technical University of Denmark in Lyngby created several shapes by spinning water at different speeds. They poured water into the bucket and set the bucket to spin.

The shapes started to appear at about seven revolutions per second. At lower speeds, the first shape that appeared was a triangle. Then as the speed increased, the shapes also changed.

With increased speeds, the triangle changed into a square and then to a pentagon. But at the highest speeds, the resultant shape was of a hexagon.  

Even the researchers were unable to give a clear explanation of why the hexagon is formed when water spins at high speeds!

Nature's Tiny Engineers – Bees!

Why is The Hexagon Everywhere? All About This Seemingly Common Shape
Source: Don Hankins/Flickr

This is one of the most commonly-known hexagons found in nature. Whenever you see the inside of a beehive, the number of packed hexagons is truly a marvel.

For centuries, scientists were unclear as to why bees used the shape of a hexagon instead of shapes like a square or a circle, which were presumably easier to construct. The answer has to do with packing efficiency.

If a series of circles were packed on each other, there would be empty spaces between them. But changing the shape to a hexagon can avoid these empty spaces. So, the hexagon allows the bees to pack the most cells in the smallest space.

Dragonfly Eyes

Why is The Hexagon Everywhere? All About This Seemingly Common Shape
Source: Mcamcamca/Flickr

If you look closely at a dragonfly, its eyes are actually a collection of tiny lenses called facets or ommatidia. This is known as a compound eye, where each lens functions as an individual visual receptor. Each lens is formed in the shape of a hexagon.

Over 30,000 hexagonal lenses are packed together to make up the complete eye. The result is a type of vision referred to by scientists as ultra-multicolor. While the dorsal (upper) region of the compound eye is likely specialized for detecting prey against the bright background of the sky, the ventral (lower) region contains three to five classes of photoreceptors, covering a spectral range from UV to red. 

This allows the dragonfly to have color differentiation abilities far superior to that of humans. The reason the dragonfly can have more than 30,000 compound lenses in its eye is, again, because of the high packing efficiency of the hexagonal shape.

The Giant’s Causeway

Why is The Hexagon Everywhere? All About This Seemingly Common Shape
Source: Chmee2/Wikimedia Commons

You might wonder about this tourist spot in Ireland with such a bizarre name. The answer lies in the legend that surrounds this place.

According to a popular myth, a giant called Fionn Mac Cumhaill (also known as Finn MacCool) built these columns as a causeway to allow him to fight a Scottish giant called Benandonner.

Mac Cumhaill designed the causeway to connect two locations and as some sort of fighting arena. There are two versions of this story. In the first one, Mac Cumhaill defeated the Scottish giant, and in the other, he flew from the Scottish giant, destroying the path he had made.

But science has a different story to tell. The rock formation results from the rapid cooling of lava to form Columnar Basalt. Around 50 to 60 million years ago, the area was subject to intense volcanic activity, and highly fluid molten basalt intruded through chalk beds. As the lava cooled, it contracted. 

The horizontal contractions fractured to leave pillarlike structures, which also fractured horizontally.

This was explained after the study led by the physicist Stephen Morris and his college Lucas Goehring from the University of Toronto found success.

“The columns are formed as a sharp front of cooling moves into the lass flow, assisted by the boiling of groundwater,” Goehring explained at the time. “As the front advances, it leaves behind a crack network which evolves into an almost hexagonal arrangement. This network carves out the columns.”

Bubble Raft

A bubble raft is an array of bubbles packed close together. It is regularly seen on the surface of soapy water. But have you ever given it a second glance?

If you do, you will notice that each bubble has a hexagon shape, although there will be some irregularities. The reason for this phenomenon again goes back to the efficient packing structure of the hexagonal shape.

When accommodating this many bubbles, the surface tension of each bubble will try to co-exist with the adherent bubble by spending the least energy. This leads to filling up the gaps, resulting in an array of hexagonal structures.

It is truly amazing how hexagons in nature exist before our eyes, and even then, we often miss them!

The Majestic Snowflake

Why is The Hexagon Everywhere? All About This Seemingly Common Shape
Source: Pixabay

Another example of finding hexagons in nature is the humble snowflake. They are mesmerizing and quite mysterious and also take on a hexagonal shape.

To define a snowflake in the simplest form, they are tiny droplets of water frozen in midair. Snowflakes come in different shapes and sizes, but one of the most predominant shapes is the hexagon.

The reason for the shape is the orientation of the water molecules themselves. Water is composed of two hydrogens and one oxygen molecule.

Water molecules change orientation with temperature. This is why they can exist in three forms - water, ice, and steam. This is the same case for other molecules found on Earth.

When water undergoes a phase change to ice, two water molecules come together to form a hexagon. Since an enormous amount of atoms are present, the continuous chains of molecules make up a large hexagon.

The example of a snowflake carries a twofold message of the hexagon in nature. First, the overall shape of the snowflake is a hexagon, and then the internal structure of the water molecules also resembles a hexagon.

The symmetry of the structure is also owed to the hexagonal structure of the molecules within itself. The whole design structure is carried over the entire snowflake structure.

Hexagons On A Turtle Shell!

Why is The Hexagon Everywhere? All About This Seemingly Common Shape
Source: Tokugawapants/Wikimedia Commons

Nature has numerous beautiful species that reflect magnificent designs, especially true of the tortoise. Their shells provide protection and also contain hexagonal shapes.

These slow-moving animals are protected with a hard shell of keratin plates called scutes, laid over a bony substructure. But have you ever observed the pattern on the shell?

Looking closely, you can see that the entire shell is formed from individual subunits. A closer look further reveals that these cells have a shape resembling a hexagon.

The subunits are given hexagonal shapes because they are one of the most efficient geometrical shapes that can cover curved surfaces with minimal material wastage. After forming the inner hexagonal layers, the shell is filled with filler shapes constituting differently-sized polygons.

Everything Begins with Carbon

You may fail to notice hexagons in yourself, but you should know that there are more of them in your body than you can ever imagine. It all comes down to the element that is present throughout our body - Carbon.

This element is one of the most commonly found in our body. It is the most important structural element and the reason we are known as carbon-based life forms. About 12 percent of your body’s atoms are carbon, adding up to about 14.4 Kg of carbon in the average adult.

“Chemistry dissolves the goddess in the alembic, Venus, the white queen, the universal matrix, Down to the molecular hexagons and carbon chains.” - Kathleen Jessie Raine.

If you were to study the atomic structure of organic material like human skin or flesh, you would find a series of carbon hexagon chains that are nicely packed together.  

The Hexagonal Shape of Nuts and Bolts

Why is The Hexagon Everywhere? All About This Seemingly Common Shape
Source: Tomascastelazo/Wikimedia Commons

When you think of hexagons around us, some of the most common and relatable objects are likely nuts and bolt heads. Hexagon is the most commonly used shape for nuts and bolts because of its unique features.

The tool edges find it much easier to grip the hexagonal-edged bolt. This means that more torque can be transferred to the bolt. This is why this design still reigns as the undisputed champ, even though the design dates back to the 1700s.

The reason why the hexagon can grip the tools is because of the degree of roundness it has. To be more precise, the hexagon conveniently stands between a polygon and a circle.

If you add more sides to a hexagon, it will closely resemble a circle. If you take away sides from a hexagon, it will become unusable.

Ever noticed a Football?!

Why is The Hexagon Everywhere? All About This Seemingly Common Shape
Source: Aaron Rotenberg/Wikimedia Commons

A football isn’t just an ordinary ball. Technically, it is a circle that does not include circular shapes.

Modern-day football is a mix of hexagons and pentagons. It is made from patches of 20 hexagons and 12 pentagons.

But this begs the question of why other shapes aren’t used. The reason is pretty simple; a hexagon is the only shape resembling a circle that allows for close packing without leaving out any waste space.

The pentagons are used to fill in the spaces that will eventually bind things up to give a more nearly perfect spherical structure.

 Your Everyday Pencils

Why is The Hexagon Everywhere? All About This Seemingly Common Shape
Source: Tomomarusan/Wikimedia Commons

Even one of the most common things we use has a hexagonal shape—the pencil. 

There are many theories on why most pencils today use a hexagon shape. Some believe it is done to prevent the pencils from rolling off the edges.

Others theorize that the shape gives maximum holding comfort. There are even theories that pencils are made into hexagonal cylinders to enable better packing when packaged in boxes.

Others point out that because the pencil starts as two sections, which are glued together, the hexagon shape makes it easier to join the two halves with graphite in the actual center. Also, typeface prints far more easily on a flat surface.

And the hexagonal shape allows manufacturers to pack in more pencils per volume than any other shape, and they become easy to store!

The Amazing Power of Hexagon!

It’s truly fascinating how hexagons are part of our everyday lives, but we often fail to realize this shape's ubiquity. The hexagon has more to it than we have ever thought, and some aspects of this shape are still mysterious.