Thursday, October 30, 2008

Nature is a Fractal--And I Feel Fractured

Most everything in the natural world can be seen as a fractal. What's a fractal?

A fractal is generally "a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole," a property called self-similarity. The term was coined by BenoƮt Mandelbrot in 1975 and was derived from the Latin fractus meaning "broken" or "fractured." A mathematical fractal is based on an equation that undergoes iteration, a form of feedback based on recursion. (Wikipedia)

What's really a fractal? Trees. Ferns. Coneflowers. Rivers. Mountains. Coastlines. Clouds. Snowflakes. Broccoli. Blood vessels. These things can be modeled and hypothetically extended on the computer via mathematical equations.

This knowledge can potentially heal us in several ways:

1) The tiny blood vessels that form with cancer cells are nearly impossible to see with a microscope. By using ultrasound, however, we can see them as fractals, and by using fractal algorithms we can possibly predict if these blood vessels will lead to cancer formation.

2) Heartbeats can be mapped as fractals, and could possibly lead us to help identify heart attack risk.

3) By studying one tree in the forest, an example of fractal formation, scientists can predict the growth of the larger forest and calculate how much oxygen they are producing and how much carbon they are sequestering.

4) Larger animals / plants more efficiently use energy than smaller ones. Why? Internal wiring within the genetic code is fractal based.

More? Cell phones, needing to be small and transmit / receive many differnet sorts of signals, use fractal-shaped antennas.

I find it both disturbing and transcendent to think of our natural world as a fractal. To think we can mathematically map and predict the world takes away the awe, maybe the soul in some respects. If we can put nature on a computer screen, what bounds does our hubris have? If we know where we are going, what does matter where we've been or what we're doing now?

And yet, to know is to heal, but so often our knowing destroys our bodies and souls, so it's easy to distrust this knowledge, easy to want to fight against it. I think I begin to understand the enlightenment more, or at least the struggles of belief and faith, past and present, the destruction of our various global cultures and ecosystems of both human and animal / plant.

*My thanks go to PBS's Nova series for the above info on fractals.


mr_subjunctive said...

Coneflowers? What part of coneflowers? I've tried, but I can't figure out what that would be referring to.

Alan said...

Enjoyed that Nova episode too. Weird dreams though. Benoit Mandelbrot met Bart Kosko and the world got pretty fuzzy. Sometimes though, we need edges to let us know who we are.

themanicgardener said...

I believe less and less that understanding things destroys either them or their mystery. My disaffection with that line of thought reached its zenith with students who thought analysis ruined poems. It can, if it's done badly or even at the wrong time, but it can also help make a poem more available to a reader. Can't we get past this dichotomous thinking? I blame Plato and his "ban poets from the Republic" absolutism.

Hmm, seem to have pushed a button there, Benjamin.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Mr. S--Apparently both the plant itself and the seed / vlower head. I don't see the blossom part myself, but more the green part. I just reports whats I reads.
Alan--You're a strange bird, aren't you? Well then, you're most welcome anytime here where I've created a sanctuary for such avian wanderers.
Kate--Believe it or not I'm with you. My very smart po students last spring actually WANTED to do more picking apart of poems, especially as an example of how to look at poets and their respective schools. I shied from this, because too often such classes also get lost and bogged down in overexplaining, killing the poem, killing the joy of the language--and as a writer, that is QUITE painful, as you know. But we are by our very physical natural bipolar--left brain, right brain / creative / analytical. Yes, the best works of of human thought and expression combine the two, weave them together in a double helix, but it is so hard to walk that fine, grey line. This is maybe why so many artists go mad or are "eccentric," I think--they live in two worlds, two plains, like quasi spirits or something. BOO!

Anonymous said...

Hi Benjamin, yes yes yes to the extremes of art and mathematics. My youngest offspring Brokenbeat switched majors from creative writing to math mid stream. How those two interests combine surprised us all. He would love the fractals and apply them to his own poetry which is way off the wall sometimes. I'm working on him though. Mother's are like that. And don't we all have the accountant/fairy/ minimalist chic/ frou frou thing going on?


Alan said...

Thanks for the perch. I'll stop by as often as I find a landing place.

Kylee Baumle said...

I see you saw the same thing I did and I went off here about fractals, telling everyone I came into contact with about them. I posted my status on Facebook that I was learning about fractals that night and my Google home page is themed "Fractals."

Now I come here and read this...