Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Mandelbrot and Fibonacci Mush

I’m trying – really trying – to understand why I should care about Fibonacci numbers.

Today’s contemplation all started with today’s New Adventures of Queen Victoria comic strip, in which artist Pab Sungenis the following:

I’ve heard of the sequence before. I know that it’s been “spotted in nature.” I know it gets math nerds as excited as Winston Churchill retorts get word nerds excited.

I just don’t know why I need to be excited about it.

Whee. The Fibonacci sequence has been noticed in the clustering of florets in some flowers. That’s neat. It’s just as neat as the phenomenon of pareidolia, which involves people spotting, say, images of Jesus or the Virgin Mary in tortillas, tree bark, or grilled cheese sandwiches. Just because you can sorta see something in something else doesn’t mean it’s there on purpose or that I should get all whipped up about it. Maybe those florests arrange themselves that way because that’s how they’re arranged. Then we come along behind and notice that some mathematical sequence happens to match the pattern and then boom it’s the Face on Mars all over again, but since it’s science-y, that takes the curse off it.

All of this reminds me of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel “The Ghost From the Grand Banks,” in which the story’s requisite genius has a lake in the form of the Mandelbrot Set. He had to include the Mandelbrot Set in a novel because, well, it was the newest, neatest science-y mathematical thingie to mince down the pike.

Problem is, he had no idea what to DO with the Mandelbrot Set now that it was in his novel, except to have it be the place where the requisite genius (or whomever, it’s been a while since I read it) meets his/her/its end. The lake could have been in the shape of, say, a four-leaf clover or the sigmoid colon and the end would have been just the same: Genius and/or minion and/or relative dies in the lake, shaped like the whatever.

If a science weenie like Clarke (he came up with the concept of geosynchronous satellites, for heaven’s sake) can’t do much beyond introducing a mathematical wowie as a mediocre plot device in a rather boring novel, then how do the rest of us stand a chance at getting all excited about it?

Heaven knows I tried. Waaaaay back when the Mandelbrot Set was all the rage, I labirously typed a computer program into my Radio Shack Color Computer 3 to reproduce the Mandelbrot Set on my computer. I remember sitting there, watching the image slowly – and I mean slowly – form on my screen, and stroking out every time one of he pixels turned up a color other than black, because that meant the program was going to run faster for a while until it got back to that familiar field of black.

I’m not saying here that these sequences and sets aren’t neat, or that they don’t help to solve problems, or help mathematicians to visualize what’s going on in nature or the universe or whatever. I’m just saying that the public relations people they have working with them aren’t doing their best to get the rest of us excited about it all.

Maybe I’ll go read about Mario Mertz instead.

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