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Father of Fractals

Fractals  are everywhere and you don’t have to be a math geek to appreciate their beauty. However, it took Benoit Mandelbrot (who WAS a serious math geek) quite a while to convince everyone that fractals (a term he coined) was a branch of mathematics worthy of serious study. Many of his contempories thought he was brilliant, but that his line of work was 1) nonsense, 2) crazy, and 3) a waste of effort. Some of Mandelbrot’s seniors were out right hostile to him and his “fractals.”

We were first introduced to Mandelbrot and fractals in the mid-80’s when we were studying computer graphics. The use of fractal geometry to create alien landscapes and worlds in movies (Star Trek II, The Last Star Fighter, etc…) got everyone buzzing about this emerging branch of mathematics. However, it wasn’t until the release of the computer game Myst in 1993 that fractals really got us interested. The immersive game made us want to better understand the mathematics behind the graphics of the world of Myst.

We started to read as much as we could about this branch of mathematics. It seemed to enabled the realistic modeling of landscapes,  branches, and other natural phenomenon. The images of fractals were magical in their complexity, yet its basic idea of self-similarity was simple and comprehensible to anyone. In fact, the concept of fractals have been evident to artists and philosophers long before they were described mathematically.

Today, fractal geometry is used to make more than just realistic looking scenes for movies and computer games. This branch of mathematics enables scientists to understand the fundamentals architecture of nature, design unbreakable codes, and speed up telecommunication. In fact, smartphones and TVs would have a lot more things poking out of them without the invention of fractal antenna.

Benoit Mandelbrot passed away last Thursday in Cambridge MA, but his contributions to math, computer graphics, telecommunications, finance, and just about every branch of science will be felt for a long long time. Who’s the crazy one now?

“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.” Benoit Mandelbrot 1924- 2010

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