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Old 04-24-2012, 07:35 PM
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Fractal Past, Fractal Future

Quote:
"Consider, for instance, one of the white flakes that are obtained by salting a solution of soap," Perrin wrote in 1906. "At a distance, its contour may appear sharply defined, but as we draw nearer, its sharpness disappears. . . . The use of a magnifying glass . . . leaves us just as uncertain, for fresh irregularities appear every time we increase the magnification, and we never succeed in getting a sharp, smooth impression, as given, for example, by a steel ball."

Mandelbrot had an advantage over Perrin and other predecessors in that he could commandeer computers to calculate and display stunning, unpredictable images of the extraordinary mathematical forms. Today, what 19th-century mathematicians could barely imagine can be speedily depicted and explored in three-dimensional, Technicolor splendor. Still, as graphic techniques continue to improve, "there's probably a lot more left to see and appreciate," notes Clifford A. Pickover, a research scientist at IBM.

Nowadays, fractals enter into scientists' descriptions of a wide range of phenomena, from the branching of air passages in the lungs and the flight paths of wandering albatrosses to the fracturing of a chunk of metal. Researchers are also looking toward the fractal frontiers.

Fractals have, for example, a potentially important role to play in characterizing weather systems and in providing insights into various physical processes, such as the occurrence of earthquakes or the formation of deposits that shorten battery life. Some scientists view fractal statistics as a doorway to a unifying theory of medicine, offering a powerful glimpse of what it means to be healthy.

Fractals lie at the heart of current efforts to understand complex natural phenomena. Unraveling their intricacies could reveal the basic design principles at work in our world.

Only recently, there was no word to describe fractals. Today, we are beginning to see such features everywhere. Tomorrow, we may look at the entire universe through a fractal lens .
ps: Science News Online 75th Anniversary Essay = 75 = 12 = HM 3

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