# Fractals in Life: photos

Fractals are a branch of math that better describes nature. Before fractals, there was Euclidean geometry, the geometry of lines, planes, and spaces. Euclidean geometry cannot give the length of a rough coastline; neither can it give the surface area of shaggy tree bark. The answer you arrive at in Euclidean geometry depends upon the scale at which you examine an object– intuitively the distance an ant travels over rough terrain is different from the distance we cover walking. The ant interacts with the terrain at a different length scale than we do. Fractal geometry is designed to handle objects with multiple meaningful length scales.

Fractal objects are sometimes called “scale-free“. This means that the object looks roughly the same even if examined at very different zooms. Many natural objects look similar at multiple zooms. Below, I include a few. The craters on the moon are scale-free. If you keep zooming in, you could not tell the scale of the image.

Terrain is often scale-free in appearance– a few years ago there was a joke photo with a penny for scale. The owners of the photo subsequently revealed that the “penny” was actually 3 feet across. I couldn’t find the photo, but you cannot tell the difference. The reveal was startling. Below is a picture of Mount St Helens. The top of this mountain is five miles (3.2ish km) away. Streams carry silt away from the mountain, as you can see more towards the foreground. They look like tiny streams. These are full-sized rivers. Mount St. Helens lacks much of the vegetation and features we would usually use to determine scale. The result is amazingly disorienting, and demonstrates scale invariance.

Plants are often scale free too. Small branches are very similar in appearance to large branches. Ferns look very fractal. Below is a picture of Huperzia phlegmaria. Each time this plant branches, there are exactly two branches. Along its length, it branches many times. It is a physical realization of a binary tree.

# Fun Science: Fractals in Nature and Fractal Measurement

This post continues Wednesday’s post about fractals and the Mandelbrot set. Fractals are a branch of mathematics that we can observe in our daily life. Something is said to be fractal when a small piece of an object resembles a larger part of itself. The featured image is of romanesco broccoli; as you can see, each small cone on the broccoli resembles the overall structure of the vegetable. For this reason, the mathematical terms “fractal” and “self-similar” are closely related.

Examples of fractals in nature abound. The heartbeat of a healthy person is fractal when plotted in time; interestingly, people with various health problems show less fractal character to their heart rate. For a great slide show with images of fractal-ness in nature, check out this Wired article. Fractals have been observed in ocean waves, mountain structures, fern, lightning, city layout, seashell, trees, and many others. Many computer graphics of natural phenomena are generated using fractal processes.

Koch Snowflake (Wikipedia)

The Koch snowflake (above), is a fractal generated from a line. As the fractal pattern is repeated, the length of the curve grows infinite. A line segment does not have infinite length, and yet the Koch Snowflake clearly does not fill space. So what is the dimension of this object? Through a method called the “box counting method“, we can determine the dimensionality of a fractal object. The box counting method is used to estimate area and coastal length from satellite pictures, as demonstrated below.

Using the box counting method to estimate the area of Great Britain (Wikipedia).

In short, we can see how the number of boxes needed to define a length or space changes as the box size changes. For a line, the number of boxes needed grows as 1n. For a space, the number of boxes grows as 2n. The method is explained in more detail here. Intuitively, we can tell the Koch Snowflake has a dimension between 1 and 2. It turns out that, using the Box Counting method, we can determine that the Koch Snowflake has a fractal dimension of log(4)/log(3), or about 1.26.

Lorenz attractor from Wikipedia

Fractal dimensions turn up in strange places. For example, chaotic attractors have fractal dimension. The Lorenz attractor, above, has a fractal dimension of 2.06. In the future I will discuss chaos and chaotic attractors. Check out my previous science posts on synchrony and art resembling science.