Fractal - History


The history of fractals traces a path from chiefly theoretical studies to modern applications in computer graphics, with several notable people contributing canonical fractal forms along the way. According to Pickover, the mathematics behind fractals began to take shape in the 17th century when the mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz pondered recursive self-similarity (although he made the mistake of thinking that only the straight line was self-similar in this sense). In his writings, Leibniz used the term "fractional exponents", but lamented that "Geometry" did not yet know of them. Indeed, according to various historical accounts, after that point few mathematicians tackled the issues and the work of those who did remained obscured largely because of resistance to such unfamiliar emerging concepts, which were sometimes referred to as mathematical "monsters". Thus, it was not until two centuries had passed that in 1872 Karl Weierstrass presented the first definition of a function with a graph that would today be considered fractal, having the non-intuitive property of being everywhere continuous but nowhere differentiable. Not long after that, in 1883, Georg Cantor, who attended lectures by Weierstrass, published examples of subsets of the real line known as Cantor sets, which had unusual properties and are now recognized as fractals. Also in the last part of that century, Felix Klein and Henri Poincaré introduced a category of fractal that has come to be called "self-inverse" fractals.

One of the next milestones came in 1904, when Helge von Koch, extending ideas of Poincaré and dissatisfied with Weierstrass's abstract and analytic definition, gave a more geometric definition including hand drawn images of a similar function, which is now called the Koch curve (see Figure 2). Another milestone came a decade later in 1915, when Wacław Sierpiński constructed his famous triangle then, one year later, his carpet. By 1918, two French mathematicians, Pierre Fatou and Gaston Julia, though working independently, arrived essentially simultaneously at results describing what are now seen as fractal behaviour associated with mapping complex numbers and iterative functions and leading to further ideas about attractors and repellors (i.e., points that attract or repel other points), which have become very important in the study of fractals (see Figure 3 and Figure 4). Very shortly after that work was submitted, by March 1918, Felix Hausdorff expanded the definition of "dimension", significantly for the evolution of the definition of fractals, to allow for sets to have noninteger dimensions. The idea of self-similar curves was taken further by Paul Pierre Lévy, who, in his 1938 paper Plane or Space Curves and Surfaces Consisting of Parts Similar to the Whole described a new fractal curve, the Lévy C curve.

Different researchers have postulated that without the aid of modern computer graphics, early investigators were limited to what they could depict in manual drawings, so lacked the means to visualize the beauty and appreciate some of the implications of many of the patterns they had discovered (the Julia set, for instance, could only be visualized through a few iterations as very simple drawings hardly resembling the image in Figure 3). That changed, however, in the 1960s, when Benoît Mandelbrot started writing about self-similarity in papers such as How Long Is the Coast of Britain? Statistical Self-Similarity and Fractional Dimension, which built on earlier work by Lewis Fry Richardson. In 1975 Mandelbrot solidified hundreds of years of thought and mathematical development in coining the word "fractal" and illustrated his mathematical definition with striking computer-constructed visualizations. These images, such as of his canonical Mandelbrot set pictured in Figure 1 captured the popular imagination; many of them were based on recursion, leading to the popular meaning of the term "fractal". Currently, fractal studies are essentially exclusively computer-based.

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