Notes

Chapter 5: Two Dimensions and Beyond

Section 4: Substitution Systems and Fractals


History of fractals

The idea of using nested 2D shapes in art probably goes back to antiquity; some examples were shown on page 43. In mathematics, nested shapes began to be used at the end of the 1800s, mainly as counterexamples to ideas about continuity that had grown out of work on calculus. The first examples were graphs of functions: the curve on page 918 was discussed by Bernhard Riemann in 1861 and by Karl Weierstrass in 1872. Later came geometrical figures: example (c) on page 191 was introduced by Helge von Koch in 1906, the example on page 187 by Waclaw Sierpinski in 1916, examples (a) and (c) on page 188 by Karl Menger in 1926 and the example on page 190 by Paul Lévy in 1937. Similar figures were also produced independently in the 1960s in the course of early experiments with computer graphics, primarily at MIT. From the point of view of mathematics, however, nested shapes tended to be viewed as rare and pathological examples, of no general significance. But the crucial idea that was developed by Benoit Mandelbrot in the late 1960s and early 1970s was that in fact nested shapes can be identified in a great many natural systems and in several branches of mathematics. Using early raster-based computer display technology, Mandelbrot was able to produce striking pictures of what he called fractals. And following the publication of Mandelbrot's 1975 book, interest in fractals increased rapidly. Quantitative comparisons of pure power laws implied by the simplest fractals with observations of natural systems have had somewhat mixed success, leading to the introduction of multifractals with more parameters, but Mandelbrot's general idea of the importance of fractals is now well established in both science and mathematics.


From Stephen Wolfram: A New Kind of Science [citation]