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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Fascinating Fractals

Fractal is a term coined in 1975 by Benoit Mandelbrot in to denote configurations that transcend traditional numerical categories. Like optical illusions, they show us things that don’t coincide with our assumptions”(Van Eenwyk, 1997, p. 56). Briggs and Peat (1989) shed some light into its origins and tell us that “the name comes from the Latin fractus, which means irregular, but Mandelbrot also liked the word’s connotations of fractional and fragmented” (p. 90), both of which apply to chaos and fractals, since fractals are “the patterns of chaos” and we can see them expressed visually in Briggs's (1992) beautiful book, Fractals: The Patterns of Chaos. Briggs and Peat (1989) also make mention of Mandelbrot’s being “stubbornly visual” and note his irregular education, which led him to do research in a number of fields. Mandelbrot describes his own experience:

Every so often I was seized by the sudden urge to drop a field right in the middle of writing a paper, and to go grab a new research interest in a field about which I knew nothing. I followed my instincts, but could not account for them until much later.” (Briggs & Peat, 1989, p. 90)

Boy can I relate, this has happened to me all along this journey. In a way, fractals bear the stamp of their creator in that they are fascinating, visually beautiful, irregular shapes that occur in many places. Fractal geometry helps us describe natural forms from the structure of galaxies and the shape of clouds and patterns of weather, to the winding of rivers, the shape of coastlines, trees, and mountains. Even brains, lungs, and blood supplies have fractal dimension, and the closer we look at them, the more the parts look like a miniature version of the whole. This is called self- similarity across scale.

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