The BBC salutes the father of the fractal, Benoit Mandlebrot, who passed away last week:
On 14 October 2010, the genius who coined the word – Polish-born mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot – died, aged 85, from cancer.
Unfortunately, there is no definition of fractals that is both simple and accurate. Like so many things in modern science and mathematics, discussions of “fractal geometry” can quickly go over the heads of the non-mathematically-minded. This is a real shame, because there is profound beauty and power in the idea of fractals.
The best way to get a feeling for what fractals are is to consider some examples. Clouds, mountains, coastlines, cauliflowers and ferns are all natural fractals. These shapes have something in common – something intuitive, accessible and aesthetic.
They are all complicated and irregular: the sort of shape that mathematicians used to shy away from in favour of regular ones, like spheres, which they could tame with equations.
Mandelbrot famously wrote: “Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line.”
The fractal mathematics Mandelbrot pioneered, together with the related field of chaos theory, lifts the veil on the hidden beauty of the world. It inspired scientists in many disciplines – including cosmology, medicine, engineering and genetics – and artists and musicians, too.
Here is an example of a naturally occurring fractal.
So we say a special “thank you” to Benoit Mandlebrot, who gave the mathematical and scientific communities a new way of looking at the world and gave the geek and stoner art community its greatest boost since MC Escher.