Fractals: Hunting the Hidden Dimension


What do movie special effects, the stock market, and heart attacks have in common? They are connected by a revolutionary new branch of math called fractals, which changed the way we see the world and opened up a vast new territory to scientific analysis and understanding. Meet the mathematicians who developed fractals from a mere curiosity to an approach that touches nearly every branch of understanding, including the fate of our universe.



A look at fractal geometry, and how it is found just about everywhere in everything, and how the mathematics of fractals can be used to model and measure such things as mountains, coastlines, telephone line noise and heart rhythm. It also shows how they are used in animation, communications and textile design.


In mathematics a fractal is an abstract object used to describe and simulate naturally occurring objects. Artificially created fractals commonly exhibit similar patterns at increasingly small scales. It is also known as expanding symmetry or evolving symmetry. If the replication is exactly the same at every scale, it is called a self-similar pattern. An example of this is the Menger sponge. Fractals can also be nearly the same at different levels. This latter pattern is illustrated in small magnifications of the Mandelbrot set. Fractals also include the idea of a detailed pattern that repeats itself.

Fractals are different from other geometric figures because of the way in which they scale. Doubling the edge lengths of a polygon multiplies its area by four, which is two (the ratio of the new to the old side length) raised to the power of two (the dimension of the space the polygon resides in). Likewise, if the radius of a sphere is doubled, its volume scales by eight, which is two (the ratio of the new to the old radius) to the power of three (the dimension that the sphere resides in). But if a fractal’s one-dimensional lengths are all doubled, the spatial content of the fractal scales by a power that is not necessarily an integer. This power is called the fractal dimension of the fractal, and it usually exceeds the fractal’s topological dimension.

As mathematical equations, fractals are usually nowhere differentiable. An infinite fractal curve can be conceived of as winding through space differently from an ordinary line, still being a 1-dimensional line yet having a fractal dimension indicating it also resembles a surface.

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