Saturday, October 16, 2010

Mandelbrot is Dead

So Benoit Mandelbrot is dead.

YouTube is filling with tributes to his genius, or so the video descriptions say. I won't dispute that perhaps he was a genius for laying the foundations for fractal geometry, and am in awe at how some are able to take such esoteric concepts and apply them to real-world solutions, using fractals to help understand how enzymes form and function, for instance, or using fractals to figure out if there are detectable earthquake precursor patterns in minor seismologic events.

Fractal geometry is also used to explain how frost and snowflakes form, and how plant leaves and their complex system of veins form as well. And then there are the people who figure they can see fractals in the art of Jackson Pollock, though it's likely certain Pollock wasn't going out to form fractals in his paint splatterings. Still, it's interesting to see how these complex patterns show up in nature, even if it's done unintentionally.

But sometimes I have to laugh at how important people think they are and how they try to inject their importance into what they do.

The most egregious example of fractals being misused has to be in Arthur C. Clarke's book "The Ghost from the Grand Banks," in which a family of genius scientists are so fascinated with fractals that they have a pond on their estate shaped like the "Mandelbrot set," made famous by the man himself. At the climax of the book, members of that family die by drowing in said pond during a thunderstorm -- another event example of fractals applied in nature, as some weather scientists see or seek complex, repeating patterns in the weather.

(Don't get me wrong. I enjoy much of what Clarke writes. But as he got older, he became more obsessed with having his characters have sex than anything else, so my interest in the science end of his writing waned as he wrote more to appeal to the masses.)

A much more enjoyable treatment of fractals in literature comes in Terry Pratchett's "Interesting Times," in which a butterfly with fractal wings induced microclimactic changes in the weather for comic effect, mainly to wet Rincewind the Wizard's hat enough so he'd finish falling through a hole into a hollow mountain in order to find and deploy the Red Army. Read the book if you haven't; it's delightful. And skip Clarke's, as he only used fractal geometry as a lame plot device, thinking he had to put them in a book to continue to be scientifically relevant. Pooh to him.

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