How Fractals Work

Fractal Image Gallery The rock star of fractals, the Mandelbrot Set. See more fractal pictures.

Fractals are a paradox. Amazingly simple, yet infinitely complex. New, but older than dirt. What are fractals? Where did they come from? Why should I care?

Unconventional 20th century mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot created the term fractal from the Latin word fractus (meaning irregular or fragmented) in 1975. These irregular and fragmented shapes are all around us. At their most basic, fractals are a visual expression of a repeating pattern or formula that starts out simple and gets progressively more complex.

One of the earliest applications of fractals came about well before the term was even used. Lewis Fry Richardson was an English mathematician in the early 20th century studying the length of the English coastline. He reasoned that the length of a coastline depends on the length of the measurement tool. Measure with a yardstick, you get one number, but measure with a more detailed foot-long ruler, which takes into account more of the coastline's irregularity, and you get a larger number, and so on.

Carry this to its logical conclusion and you end up with an infinitely long coastline containing a finite space, the same paradox put forward by Helge von Koch in the Koch Snowflake. This fractal involves taking a triangle and turning the central third of each segment into a triangular bump in a way that makes the fractal symmetric. Each bump is, of course, longer than the original segment, yet still contains the finite space within. Weird, but rather than converging on a particular number, the perimeter moves towards infinity. Mandelbrot saw this and used this example to explore the concept of fractal dimension, along the way proving that measuring a coastline is an exercise in approximation [source: NOVA].

If fractals have really been around all this time, why have we only been hearing about them in the past 30 years or so?