Fractals are Everywhere

Fractals: Hunting the Hidden Dimension (DVD) NOVA/PBS Home Video; you can also watch the program online.


When flipping channels a few months ago I stopped at PBS which was airing a NOVA production right then. The first two words I heard from the tv were "fractal geometry" which gave me a slight wincing thing in my eye, like I'd gotten a squirt from a grapefruit. There was a brief flashback to Mr. Pawlak's geometry class, circa 1975.

Until now all I knew about fractals was two things: that screensaver from about 10 years ago that I could stare at endlessly and the Magic Eye books from the mid 90s (I couldn't see it then, can't see it now). But, my rule is, "If it's done by NOVA, I will watch it." It is, and I did. And it pretty much blew me away.

I was fascinated by the life of Benoit Mandelbrot, the father of fractal geometry, and his pioneering work in mathematics--he was, of course, mocked and ridiculed by his peers of the day and now has won over 20 awards for his work. Born in Poland in 1924, Benoit and his family fled to France in 1936 to avoid Nazi persecution, and young Benoit spent much of his teens avoiding the Nazis in France.

The film itself is stunningly gorgeously wonderfully watchable, on par with Planet Earth but way shorter at just under an hour. The narrator's voice is reminiscent of fourth grade science film strips from the late 1960s, but not overly noticeable as such, and honestly, it adds a certain je ne sais quoi.

So now I know fractals are simply the irregular repeating shapes that are found all around us: cloud formations, broccoli, craggy mountain ranges, growth patterns of a rain forest, and even in our bodies--the branching of normal blood vessels follows a fractal pattern. One way scientists and physicians can determine a cancerous growth is the very abnormal (non fractal) distribution of blood vessels in the tumor.

So now I wonder if the waves of customers at our Hollywood checkout desk conform to Mandelbrot's equation. And what about traffic patterns? Maybe the way the needles will fall off my Christmas tree onto the carpet will make that cool graph shape. The occurrence of red tides on the Oregon Coast--what about that? Sea bird population growth and decrease? I know broccoli florets are a fractal pattern, but what about cauliflower? Fractals are everywhere.

To date I've watched the DVD three times and Benoit Mandelbrot is my new hero--move over Jacques Cousteau and share the throne. Benoit rocks.