**We cannot necessarily put our finger on what makes patterns in nature so recognizable. In some natural phenomena we may see elements that are recurring, sometimes at different scales: repeating elements in shapes that are complex and irregular.**

One of the more obvious examples of patterning that is repeating (self-replicating) and scalable (whether enlarged – by zooming in, or reduced in size – by zooming out) is evident in the structure of the leaf divisions of the frond of a fern.

**The leaf structure of a fern frond is pretty much self-similar as its intricately detailed leaf divisions self-replicate or repeat at different scales, as can be seen in the photographs above**

In addition to being scalable and self-repeating, the outlines of these shapes are irregular and wiggly and cannot be mathematically mapped using classical geometry. Classical (or Euclidean) geometry is based on geometrical shapes with smooth lines such as two-dimensional squares, rectangles, triangles and circles, and three dimensional cubes, cylinders, pyramids, cones and spheres, all being shapes that are seldom found in nature.

**Many plants have forms that are geometrically irregular with rough rather than smooth outlines, comprising repeated shapes that are self-similar and scalable**

So, now I am wondering why I have followed through on doing a post on fractals? Mathematics is not something I have an affinity for, and something as complex as fractals constantly eludes me. Yet, the development of fractal geometry commencing in the 1970s was not only ground-breaking in mathematics, but the use of computer-generated graphics to make data visual resulted in ‘computer art’ that impacted on popular culture and even resonated with the subculture of psychedelia.

**Above is a sample of the image results found by doing an Internet search using the term ‘computer-generated fractals’**

Benoît Mandelbrot, often described as a ‘maverick mathematician’, building on the work of previous mathematicians (including Gaston Julia and Pierre Fatou) and utilizing the data visualization power of computers (he worked at IBM) is credited with being a founder of fractal geometry. His name entered popular culture when complex and beautiful computer-generated imagery graphically demonstrated his discovery of a fractal shape that became known as the Mandelbrot Set. The development of computer graphics enabled the set of coded mappings of points on the complex plane to be endlessly reiterated and presented graphically.

**Samples of T-shirts found when searching for images using the search term ‘Mandelbrot T-shirts**

In South Africa we have a saying ‘ja well no fine’, which indicates something like reluctant acceptance, which might approach my initial response to the Mandelbrot Set and fractal geometry, given my lack of even basic mathematical conceptual understanding. So if you are interested, Wikipedia has detailed entries on both the Mandelbrot Set (see here) and fractals (see here).

Mandelbrot coined the mathematical term fractal (meaning broken-up, fractional or irregular) in the 1970s. He is quoted in the Wikipedia entry on fractals as summarizing fractals as “beautiful, damn hard, increasingly useful. That’s fractals”. He later defined a fractal as “a shape made of parts similar to the whole in some way”.

When I started reading about fractals, my interest was to try to learn about fractals in nature, and many shapes in nature are in fact fractal. Fractal geometry can provide modelling of the complexity and roughness (wigglyness) of fractal phenomena in nature.

Fractals in nature include fractal branching in natural phenomena such as trees, river systems, lightning bolts and in the vessels in blood circulatory systems and in the lungs. Other fractals include snowflakes, mountain ranges, clouds, heart beats, pineapples, broccoli and ocean waves!

Following research by the more than interesting British mathematician, scientist and pacifist Lewis Fry Richardson, in an early paper, ‘How Long is the Coast of Britain?—Statistical Self-Similarity and Fractional Dimension’ (1967), Mandelbrot discusses the geographical curves of the coastline and the phenomenon that the length of a coastline increases when smaller units of measure are used. In other words, the length of the coastline is determined by the scale of measurement, and the closer it is measured, that is the more it is magnified, the more details appear.

**This photograph of a shoreline (Lake Sibaya in KwaZulu-Natal) shows a close up view of the wiggly shoreline, illustrating how a shoreline will become longer, as the unit of measure that is applied becomes smaller and so more detailed**

The more wiggly (or complicated) a coastline is the faster the rate of the increase in the length of the perimeter becomes as smaller units of measure are applied. This rate of increase is reflected in the calculated fractal dimension, which is a higher number the more wriggly a coastline is.

Key concepts such as complex numbers, the complex plane and fractal dimension are beyond the scope of this post (and my ability to explain). So I refer to three enlightening introductory texts that are listed as sources below: Rose (2012), Dallas (2014) and Najera (2020).

Perhaps the fractal nature of branching in nature is easier to grasp as it is more visual. For example, like all fractals, a tree can be seen to be a rough or fragmented shape that can be broken up into small parts, which can be seen as smaller copies of the larger shape. The branching of a tree is fractal as the branches remain approximately self-similar, repeating as they progressively decrease in size culminating in twigs.

As for all fractals, tree branches repeat at different scales, having a fine and detailed structure that reiterates. Tree structures are a factor in optimizing the transport of sap and access to light and the ability of a tree to be flexible and resist wind.

Applications of the fractal nature of tree branching include that modelling can reveal how much carbon dioxide a tree exchanges with the atmosphere, and modelling can lead to an understanding of how much water a tree transpires through its leaves.

Other examples of branch-like structures are evident in the circulatory system of the blood, in the nervous system and in the respiratory systems of mammals. In the respiratory system, a large surface area is needed to optimise exchange of gases (oxygen and carbon dioxide). Within the space constraints of the respiratory system, the branching system – its fractal geometry – allows the packing in of a relatively enormous surface area into a small volume. Similarly, in the blood circulatory system, the branching down to ever smaller capillaries enables the supply of blood to all cells in body tissues.

**A cross-section of a broccoli head showing fractal branching**

Fractal branching in nature exhibits the characteristics of self-similarity and detailed intricacy. Although within nature, fractal branching cannot be infinite, like all fractals they are self-similar over different scales; in other words they exhibit zoom symmetry.

Using fractal geometry, complex natural shapes can be encoded using simple mathematical rules. The complexity emerges through multiple iterations in an ongoing feedback loop.

Even clouds have been shown to be fractal. They are the same at all scales, and using fractal geometry to determine their fractal dimension, computer images of clouds can be generated that are indistinguishable from actual clouds.

**Fractals are used in computer-generated landscapes and special effects used in movies and computer games. This cloudscape, photographed in the Western Cape, is however real**

In his blog, George Dallas, an Information Engineer/Internet Social Scientist had this to say about the field of fractal geometry:

The shapes that come out of fractal geometry

Dallas (2014)look like nature.This is an amazing fact that is hard to ignore. As we all know, there are no perfect circles in nature and no perfect squares. Not only that, but when you look at trees or mountains or river systems they don’t resemble any shapes one is used to in maths. However with simple formulas iterated multiple times, fractal geometry can model these natural phenomena with alarming accuracy. If you can use simple maths to make things look like the world, you know you’re onto a winner. Fractal geometry does this with ease.

**Fractals can be used to create computer-generated realistic-looking images of mountain ranges. The mountains in the photo above are real mountains in the Richtersveld National Park**

The practical application of fractal geometry appears to be a growing field, with its ability to map complex and irregular objects being applied in a variety of disciplines. It has been used in astronomy to analyse galaxy structures. In Earth sciences fractal geometry is applied to data pertaining to dynamic systems such as cloud formation, weather systems, water currents, soil erosion, seismic patterns and even the migrations of animals. In medicine, fractal techniques are used in the analysis and interpretation of CT and MRI scans in the diagnosis of cancer and other diseases. Fractal tools are also used in cardiovascular research and diagnostics.

Beyond astronomy, Earth sciences and medicine, fractal geometry is widely applied in other sciences including computer science, fluid mechanics and telecommunications.

Yet, even to non-mathematicians what remains so compelling about the fractal nature of structures is how appealing they can be to the human eye and imagination. The photograph below is of flowers on the fruiting structure of a pineapple plant that is growing in our vegetable garden. The fractal flowering structure does not have the mesmerising infinite flow of computer-generated fractals, but it is no less wondrous.

**Sources:**

Dallas, George. 2014. What is are Fractals and why should I care? George Dallas, UK based Information Engineer/Internet Social Scientist [blog]. https://georgemdallas.wordpress.com/2014/05/02/what-are-fractals-and-why-should-i-care/#:~:text=Fractal%20geometry%20is%20a%20field,example%20of%20a%20fractal%20shape.

Fractal Foundation. [n.d.] What are Fractals? https://fractalfoundation.org/resources/what-are-fractals/

Hemery, Gabriel. 2017. The art and math of tree fractals. Gabriel Hemery [blog]. https://gabrielhemery.com/tree-fractals/

Lesmoir-Gordon, N. 2012. The maverick mathematician: Benoît Mandelbrot and the stunning beauty of the fractal universe. *Medicographia*. No. 112 , Vol 34, No. 3, pp. 354-364). https://www.medicographia.com/2013/01/the-maverick-mathematician-benoit-mandelbrot-and-the-stunning-beauty-of-the-fractal-universe/

Najera, Jesus. 2020. Fractal Geometry: From Gaston Julia to Benoit Mandelbrot. August 12. Medium . Cantor’s Paradise. https://medium.com/cantors-paradise/fractal-geometry-9e516a5b244b

Rose, Michael. 2012. Explainer: what are fractals? December 11. *The Conversation.* https://theconversation.com/explainer-what-are-fractals-10865

**Posted by Carol**

January 3, 2021 at 11:42 pm

I think what is interesting is when you throw psilocybin into a mathematicians mind. It is truly hard to unsee some of the patterns that exist around all of us, patterns that drove me insane for some time. I have realized that in a universe of fractals, I am simply a small bud on the ever infinite fractal of a head of broccoli.

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January 4, 2021 at 1:06 pm

Far out! 🍄 🙂🥦 Food for thought, thanks!

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December 14, 2020 at 9:20 pm

The finger has healed sufficiently to allow me to type once again, though catching up may be a monumental task…

I couldn’t find the pictures I took of the Romanesco broccoli, but this article shows the fascinating shapes far better:

https://www.scientificamerican.com/gallery/fractals-in-broccoli/

Hope you’re keeping well these days. We seem to have more cases spreading all over the country, but live hasn’t changed much for us since we’ve been hunkered down for the most part. Hopefully the vaccine will return us to something closer to normal in the new year… a new president seems another sign of hope, though he has a tremendous mess to try to clean up!

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December 17, 2020 at 4:45 pm

Thanks for the link to the Romanesco broccoli – it takes being fractal-esque to another level compared to ordinary broccoli!

Glad to hear your finger is on the mend and good luck with the catching up!

We are well thanks, though very concerned about escalating Covid cases, and sadly deaths too, here in SA too.

Amidst all the anxiety and dread there are signs of hope for the New Year – let’s hope they come to fruition. Take care!

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December 9, 2020 at 10:27 am

A very interesting post on a topic involving mathematics which I had not considered before. Your photos and description make it easy to understand. I particularly love the Lake Sibaya shoreline, and the deciduous trees to show fractal branching. I definitely learnt something today!

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December 10, 2020 at 8:35 pm

Thanks very much. I am also fond of the photo taken at sunset at Lake Sibaya.

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December 7, 2020 at 2:48 pm

Oh look what’s popped up, unbidden, into my news feed: https://www.treehugger.com/amazing-fractals-found-in-nature-4868776. Creepy though. It’s been watching me reading your blog ,….

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December 7, 2020 at 5:25 pm

It is rather creepy …

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December 7, 2020 at 6:02 pm

Mmmmm.

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December 6, 2020 at 1:14 am

Really interesting post and photos!

I discovered fractals some time ago when I took some photos of dill flowers. The series of photos ended with a macro (sadly kind of blurry) that really showed how the individual flowers mimicked the shape of the cluster and so on and so on. Fascinating.

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December 6, 2020 at 7:39 pm

Thanks very much Margy. I have just looked up photos of dill flowers, and I can see what you mean about them repeating shapes at different scales.

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December 5, 2020 at 8:45 am

I am speechless. For someone who says that mathematics is not her forte, you have done a marvellous job of explaining fractals and why they are so appealing. Your photographs are again spectacular. The broccoli particularly caught my eye. Do you, I wonder, have a photographic studio with special lights in your kitchen?!

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December 6, 2020 at 7:33 pm

Thanks a lot Mariss. In fact I did photograph the broccoli while preparing supper 🙂

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December 5, 2020 at 4:49 am

Fascinating stuff. It’s pretty interesting how various branches of mathematics seem able to explain even the most complex things. I’m completely unfamiliar with fractile geometry outside of the kind of images you refer to, but you do a great job of explaining the basics in a clear and accessible way. Now, if your next post is about quantum physics, you might lose me there!

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December 6, 2020 at 7:25 pm

Thanks very much Graham. I also first became aware of fractals through the computer imagery that became so popular.

I am with you on the subject of quantum physics. It is strange that there seem to be many people out there who know nothing about physics yet claim a kind of personal insight into quantum physics.

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December 7, 2020 at 5:36 am

Well, I can assure you I have no insight into that subject.

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December 7, 2020 at 5:02 pm

😊

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December 5, 2020 at 3:30 am

Dear Carol, I find fractals mesmerising, as the old adage goes, the name is not the thing. For me the observation of this magical phenomenon is perfect in itself, as are spirals in the growth of life forms. Your blog is as always fascinating and perfectly illustrated, thank you! xxx

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December 6, 2020 at 6:39 pm

Thanks very much Christeen.

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December 4, 2020 at 9:17 pm

Fractals have fascinated me since I first learned of them. Their organic growth patterns repeat endlessly, infinitely and I believe they are the point where energy moves into form– basically, creation itself.

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December 6, 2020 at 6:37 pm

They certainly are fascinating. I have been aware of the computer art and the fractal nature of ferns and other plants, but the fractal nature of coastlines baffled me at first, and still my mind is bent by complex numbers, the Hausdorff dimension and a whole lot more! Who knew maths could be so intriguing?

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December 4, 2020 at 4:47 pm

I’m seconding Anne’s comment. Yesterday evening we were re-watching on YouTube quantum physicist Jim Al Kahlili’s programme ‘Everything and nothing: what is nothing’. It’s pretty mind-bending stuff – how mathematics proved the existence of anti-matter, and that how in a vacuum where there seems to be nothing, electrons are pulsing on but quickly being cancelled by their negative opposite. (If I’ve understood it correctly). Anyway it so made me wish that I had understood mathematics when I was at school, and how much better our grip on reality might be if most of us weren’t so scientifically and mathematically ignorant.

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December 4, 2020 at 9:34 pm

Thanks Tish. When reading about fractals I was made so aware how limiting it is to be so mathematically illiterate, so I agree with what you say about being ignorant. When I was in school mathematics was taught in such a way as to make it dull and more about memorizing stuff than actually thinking. Perhaps it can be taught to make it more engaging even at school level? Thanks for alerting me to Al Kahlili – I will definitely follow up and watch some of his documentary programmes.

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December 5, 2020 at 11:10 am

I so agree about Maths teaching back in the day. If someone had even suggested to me that it was a ‘language’, or another way to describe experience, that alone would have raised enthusiasm.

Happy to pass on Jim Al Khalili. His documentaries are artworks in their own right. He uses every ‘cinematic’ device in the book (and more) to wring comprehension from even the most resisting brain 🙂

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December 6, 2020 at 7:37 pm

It is a shame that traditional approaches to teaching maths likely turned off a lot of people for good.

I have already watched one of Al Khalili’s documentaries – the one on Chaos. He certainly does make difficult concepts more accessible. Thanks again.

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December 7, 2020 at 9:54 am

I must watch Chaos again! Glad Jim’s hitting the spot 🙂

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December 4, 2020 at 4:35 pm

My goodness, Carol, you’ve taken me out of my comfort zone today. I’m a mathematical illiterate, yet you have convinced me that maybe, just maybe I could make some sense of all this fractal malarkey if I just applied myself. You’ve certainly made it seem interesting, and I am someone who has gone through life finding maths unutterably dull and baffling. I’ve already followed up the George Dallas link, and think that this repays close attention .. so I will. Tomorrow …

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December 4, 2020 at 8:56 pm

It has taken me way outside my comfort zone too and I am not quite sure why I have become so engaged by the whole thing, although its daunting to be confronted by the immensity of my own ignorance. As I have been reading and rereading, the learning process itself seems to be quite iterative 🙂 I hope you enjoy following up on this as much as I have.

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December 4, 2020 at 9:48 pm

I think it’s one of those ideas which may have to simmer a bit before it cooks enough for my poor brain to take it on. But I’ll get there.

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December 4, 2020 at 3:56 pm

Carol, only you can make a complex issue sound so interesting – and so beautifully and aptly illustrated too! This is a fascinating post!

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December 4, 2020 at 8:52 pm

Thanks so much Anne. I was afraid it might come across a bit dry, and it was a challenge stray into such alien territory and then try to write about it, but it really has engaged my interest.

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