The Quantum Tunnel

Science and the World around Us Volume 1, Number 6, August 28, 2011

Fractal Geometry
This article first appeared in the May 2011 issue of The Next Door Magazine David Latchman The wise man looks into space and does not regard the small as too little, nor the great as too big, for he knows that, there is no limit to dimensions.

tists and mathematicians for decades and for several reasons. This pattern is a consequence and property of something known as fractal geometry and it holds some deep and profound secrets to our universe. But how did this discovery come about and what does it mean for our understanding of the Universe and our lives?

A Noisy Problem
In 1958, Beniot Mandelbrot left France to work at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center to come upon a particularly vexing problem. The center’s engineers were puzzled by the presence of noise in the telephone lines used to transmit digital data between computers but the problem was a curious one, the noise wasn’t persistent but rather came in clusters and seemingly at random. So there would be periods of clear error-free transmission followed by bursts of error-filled noisy communication which made things problematic for several reasons. An engineer could describe the problem by the average error rate. But this takes for granted that the rate of errors in a given hour, minute or even second, depends on noise occurring persistently throughout the signal’s transmission, which had not been observed. In Mandelbrot’s terms, the periodic nature in which errors occurred approached infinite sparseness. So Mandelbrot decided to look at the problem in another way, this time by looking at how the clean and noisy periods occurred at different time scales. In a given day, there would be an hour of clean transmission followed by noise. The noisy hour would then be followed by a period with no errors. Mandelbrot decided to look at that error-filled hour

If you have ever attempted to mend a broken coffee mug, the edges never seem to rejoin perfectly. Considering the fractured mug is made up of tessellating fragments, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, they should fit and lock together perfectly, almost as if the crack never happened. But while they do fit together on some gross scale, at smaller scales, the irregular bumps on which the shards of ceramic comprise doesn’t line up. This paradox of materials science was referred to as the “Humpty Dumpty Effect” by Columbia University professor, Christopher Scholz, while studying the reasons and the mathematical patterns that describe the distribution of large and small earthquakes, the consequence of which, lies in the fact that surfaces in contact do not touch everywhere. As they lie or move against each other, the cracks from microscopic gaps which affect the way surfaces lie and rub against each other. The reasoning behind Scholz’s Humpty Dumpty Effect goes far deeper than broken pieces of ceramic or how frequently earthquakes occur. The tiny irregular bumps of a crack’s surface exhibits a certain pattern of bumps upon bumps known as “selfsimilarity” which can be seen through nature with remarkable regularity and this has fascinated scien-

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Vol. 1, August 28, 2011

in more detail. Inside, he found that there were similar periods of noise and clean transmission; so there might be twenty minute periods filled with errors followed by twenty minutes of clean transmission. A further examination of that twenty minute period filled with noise also revealed similarly spaced periods of clean and noisy data. What Mandelbrot found was that you could never find a time when errors were scattered continuously throughout the signal and within any burst of errors there would be periods of completely error-free transmission. He also discovered that there was a consistent geometric relationship between the bursts of errors and the periods of clean transmission. Whether the scale was an hour, a minute or a second, the proportion of errorfree periods to error-filled periods was constant. This feature of symmetry across scales or patterns in patterns is known as “self-similarity” and is of interest to scientists not just because details exist at finer and finer scales but these details exist at certain constant measurements. One way to fix the noise problem is obviously to send a technician armed with a screwdriver to poke and prod at circuits until the problem is resolved. The other is to increase the current or the signal strength, effectively drowning out the noise. But no matter what they tried or how much stronger the signal strength was made, the spontaneous noise could not be eliminated. The engineer’s inability to describe or even solve the problem came from the fact that Mandelbrot was describing something that was unheard of by engineers but known to mathematicians, a construction known as a Cantor set, named after the nineteenthcentury German mathematician Georg Cantor, the inventor of set theory. The Cantor set, or more appropriately called the “Cantor ternary set”, is built by repeatedly removing the middle third of a line segment. Thus given a line, one starts by deleting the middle third of the line leaving two solid line segments. The middle third segments of these lines are removed and the process repeated ad infinitum, leaving behind a dust of points. Done enough times and there would be an infinite number of points but the total length is 0.

signal strength comes with a cost, both to generate and transmit. But Mandelbrot determined that errors were inevitable and could not be avoided, something engineers should accept them, settling for a modest signal and implement a strategy to catch and correct errors. This system, which utilizes a strategy of redundancy to catch and correct errors is used in digital communication today. Mandelbrot subsequently turned his attention to other data sets ranging from records of the height of the Nile river to global cotton prices to find the same patterns of self-similarity. Within the data, he found the same patters that was observed when he looked at his noise data, that certain changes show the same patters no matter what scale they were being viewed. Mandelbrot’s ability to see this came from a special ability that very few mathematicians possessed at the time, an ability to see things and solve problems visually. It is this ability that will help him discover a new branch of mathematics and introduce the world to a whole new way of thinking and seeing nature.

The Visual Mathematician
Mandelbrot was born in 1924 Warsaw to Lithuanian Jewish parents and a family with a strong academic background; his mother was a physician and two of his uncles were mathematicians who introduced the young Benoit to mathematics. But the political realities of Nazi Germany would force the Mandelbrots to flee their home in 1936 and move to France. By the time the war finally came, the family managed to stay one step ahead of the Nazis, abandoning everything they owned, save for what could fit in a few suitcases to find their way to the town of Tulle. The effects of the war had an effect on Benoit’s education, making his education both irregular and discontinuous. Benoit claimed to never have learned past his five times multiplication tables but he did possess a remarkable gift for geometrical intuition. Despite his lack of academic preparation, Benoit applied for the École Normale and École Polytechnic, two of the most prestigious schools in France’s Grandes Écoles system, passing the month long oral and written admission examinations. In the mathematical tests, Benoit managed to hide his lack of training with his ability to think in terms of shapes and relating those shapes to the problem at hand, transforming it and altering its symmetry to come at a solution. But in areas where geometry could not be applied, in subjects like physics and chemistry, he did poorly. The effects of the first World War also had a profound effect on the sciences by leaving an age gap between university professors and students; the old tradition of academic continuity, of the old passing 2

Figure 1: The Cantor Ternary Set. While Engineers had no way to describe this highly abstract and paradoxical mathematical creation that puzzled nineteenth-century mathematicians, Mandelbrot saw some of the practical consequences for engineers and scientists. Increasing the

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the mantle to the young, was disrupted. But this was far from a detriment to young French mathematics. Released from the shackles of the traditions that came before, a brilliant group of young mathematicians set out to establish new foundations and ideas within their field. It was during this period, they sought to not only establish a primacy of mathematics among the sciences but also a detachment. Logical analysis was to become the basis of this movement and with it, a rejection of any visual representation. A mathematician could be fooled by his senses they though but the rigor of the axiomatic method, of using self-evident truths upon which to logically derive other statements would become the new way of doing things. Mathematics was to be pure and logical. This change wasn’t just seen in France. The repercussions of World War I on the sciences was also felt around the world and, in particular, the United States. Mathematics there, also sought to become more self-contained and mathematicians took pride in this fact. It was a badge of honor for a mathematician to say that his work explained nothing of the world and had no relation to science. But this was to change. The rigid tower of logic, the purity that mathematicians sought was about to fall and give way to a new way of thinking.

The Geometry of Nature
The geometry we were taught in high school, the one most are familiar with, was first codified by the philosopher and mathematician Euclid and dates back over two thousand years. In mathematics and geometry, the Greeks saw a world of perfection and beauty, choosing to create and model their civilization in its image to serve almost as a refuge from the chaotic design of nature. So prominent was this pursuit and ideal of mathematical purity, that it not only featured prominently in their art and architecture but their sciences as well. These ideas of infinitely smooth and symmetric shapes, the circle being the most pure, were so influential that Ptolemy based the model of his solar system on this, of a Earth-centered solar system and where the Sun and other planets followed circular orbits. While the Ptolemaic model of the solar system is no longer used, the principles and ideals of symmetrical purity remains influential today. For many of us, Euclidean geometry is the only geometry we ever learn. But our experience tells us something different. As we look at the objects around us and in nature, we know things aren’t always symmetrical or even smooth. Mandelbrot was fond of saying that clouds are not spheres, mountains are not pyramids and bolts of lightning are not cylinders. They are rough

and chaotic and jagged. The Euclidean ideal, while still useful, is ill equipped to adequately describe many of the objects found in nature. But how do we describe something that is discontinuous, asymmetric or even noisy and can it be done? The shapes of classical geometry, of lines and planes, of spheres, cubes and cones are ill-equipped to describe the geometry of nature with all its messy pits and tangles. We rarely think of it but we live in a threedimensional world defined by length, width and height. These three-dimensions in turn can be used to describe an object’s shape in our world be it cubes, pyramids or spheres. But objects with fewer dimensions can also be described within our threedimensional world. A sheet, for example, had both length and width but no thickness and is thus twodimensional. Technically, it is still three-dimensional but if the thickness is small enough we can ignore it. Similarly, a line is one-dimensional while a point has no dimensions. But how do we, say, describe a ball of twine, a three-dimensional object wrapped around by a one-dimensional one? Benoit Mandelbrot asked that same question and the answer depends on how we’re looking at it. From a great distance, the ball of twine looks like a point and has no dimensions. But as we move closer, the point object becomes larger and comes into view; we see a sphere. We can’t see the twine, so the ball appears to be smooth, it is a three-dimensional object. But as we move in and zoom even closer, the ball disappears and the twine comes into view. We are now see a one-dimensional object wrapped around a three-dimensional space but still a one dimensional object none the less. As we zoom in even closer, the string gains thickness, becoming three-dimensional. Further still, if we continue to zoom in, we notice the twine is made of individual fibers. It now resolves itself to strings of one-dimensional objects wrapped around each other in three-dimensions. To explain how an object’s form depends on how it’s viewed, Mandelbrot appealed to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity saying, “The notion that a numerical result should depend on the relation of object to observer is in the spirit of physics in this century and is even an exemplary illustration of it.” But philosophical gedankenexperiments aside, what happens from the moment a point becomes a sphere? Or rather, when a zero-dimensional object becomes a three-dimensional one? Does such a point even exist? Mandelbrot’s loose terminology of “great distance” and “closer” doesn’t describe what happens at these points. Dimensions are described in terms of integer or whole numbers; 0, 1 , 2 or even 3. In some areas of the sciences, we can go up to four or even eleven. But to describe the roughness and irregularity of an object, Mandelbrot turned to something completely 3

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different and unintuitive – fractional dimensions – and in so doing, came up with a means of measuring things that had no definition in the classical Euclidean sense. To name is new creation, Benoit turned to the Latin verb fractus, from the verb frangere, to break. The words also have a familiarity in ˝ English U fracture and fraction. From this, Mandelbrot created a new word for his new creation, fractal.

Of Snowflakes, Coastlines and Fractional Dimensions
Mandelbrot thought of fractals as a means of seeing infinity. The Cantor Dust fractal is constructed with some really simple rules, remove the middle third of a solid line and repeat. Repeated ad infitum, the shape takes on a “dusty” appearance that looks the same at different scales. Another particular fractal, the Koch snowflake also follows a similar pattern. Starting with a triangle, we remove the middle third of each side and replace it with a new triangle, identical in shape but one-third the size. What begins as a triangle, becomes a star of David, then a snowflake with further iterations transforming the shape into something with increasing detail and complexity. There is something both peculiar and interesting about this shape, apart from its apparent beauty. For one, it’s a continuous loop; at no point do any of the lines meet or intersect, as each new additional triangle becomes smaller and does not to bump into its neighbor. But there is also a paradox that defies logic and reasoning, at least at first glance. Each new iteration increases the shape’s original length by onethird but the area doesn’t increase by by a comparable amount. In fact, it doesn’t increase by much. If we drew a circle around the snowflake, we see that the area doesn’t extend beyond the circle. Repeating the Koch snowflake’s iterations to infinity, we get a shape whose perimeter is infinitely long but encloses a finite area. Mandelbrot looked at this in his 1967 paper as a means of describing self-similar curves, along with a curious coastline measurement problem first highlighted by an English scientist, Lewis Fry Richardson. Richardson was studying reasons for conflict and why neighboring nations went to war. Thinking perhaps that the probability of two nations going to war depended, somehow, on the length of their shared border, he compiled data for the lengths of shared borders between neighboring countries. What he found was considerable variation in these reported lengths and, often, that distance differed depending on the unit length or being used. A nation using the kilometer and another using the mile got quite different results.

The problem was stated simply. Suppose we wanted to measure the coastline of Britain and had, at our disposal 200km, 100km and 50km rulers. We see that the smaller ruler is better able to navigate and fit into the various twists and turns that the bigger ruler skips over and, as a result, records a longer length than the bigger ruler. Richardson postulated that the use of smaller and smaller units of measure ˇ will eventually converge on the coastline’s StrueT ¸ length. This is the logical conclusion. But it is wrong as it doesn’t take into account the fractal nature of the coastline. The resemblance between Richardson’s coastline problem and mathematical curves similar to the Koch snowflake is striking. The Koch snowflake’s perimeter of infinite length but finite area comes from self-similarity. Though not intuitively obvious, a country’s coastline has the same self-similar properties. No coastline is a flat surface. It is made up of tiny features comprised of irregularly shaped boulders, rocks and pebbles. A giant walking around the coast will walk over many of these features that a human will have to navigate. A snail has to glide over the rocks and pebbles that a person will walk over and an ant will navigate the tiny cracks and crevices along the coastline. The coastline’s length becomes infinite.

Fractals in Nature
Simple rules can be used to build complex shapes in nature. Within the human body, blood vessels smoothly transition from the aorta to capillaries, branching and dividing, becoming narrower and narrower until a vein is so narrow that blood cells must flow in single file. This branching structure is fractal in nature and can be seen quite frequently in the natural world. But why would these structures predominate so frequently? There must be some reason why is occurs in nature.

Figure 4: Blood flows from the heart to arteries, which follow into arterioles and then into capillaries. The fractal branching maximizes the surface area of the blood vessels and permeate as much of the tissue mass as possible. 4

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Figure 2: The Koch Snowflake showing one, two, three, four and five iterations respectively. The red circle shows that, while the perimeter of the snowflake increases with each iteration, its area remains bounded and doesn’t change by much.

Figure 3: Measurement of the Coastline of Britain using a 200km ruler, 100km ruler and a 50km ruler. (From Wikipedia Commons) The answer to that question is a matter of metabolic efficiency. All the required information and instructions needed to “build” an organism is encoded within its DNA, everything from the size of the organism, to its weight and even what it looks like. If we were to print this information, the bound pages would fill millions of volumes of an encyclopedia. It is quite possible to encode a complete map of all the veins and arteries within an organism but a larger DNA molecule means cellular replication takes longer and slows the growth rate of an organism. This in turn affects an organism’s ability to reproduce and ultimately survive. Self-similar rules allows an organism minimize the information needed to create a complex network of blood vessels with minimal information. But there are reasons beyond cellular replication as to why self-similarity plays such an important role in nature. Within an organism, blood is a prime commodity. The circulatory system must move blood to feed and nourish various tissues as efficiently as possible, permeating as much as an organism’s mass as possible and in this area, fractals work beautifully. The bifurcating fractal design of blood vessels does in three dimensions what the Koch snowflake does in two; maximizing the surface area within a finite 5

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volume. In fact, many of the various surfaces found in an organism’s organs follow this principle. The various undulations found in the lungs, stomach and kidneys also serve to maximize surface area within a finite volume, raising the efficiency of in which nutrients are absorbed and waste materials are expelled. But this simple model of beauty and efficiency doesn’t just apply to structures within a body. Trees, ferns, clouds are just some of the many structures in nature that are fractals. Rendered on a computer, we can express these simple rules to create some of the same complex shapes found in nature. But fractals aren’t just the domain of nature. Man has also found ways to apply these principles to the technology we use on a day to day basis.

above or below this, the efficiency one can transmit and receive diminishes. But the structure of a fractal antenna is different as its shape allows it to work at many different resonances or frequencies and thus remains efficient over a wide range of the radio spectrum. Using conventional antennas, your cell-phone would have become a porcupine of antenna quills to utilize the spectrum that a fractal antenna is able to. This in turn has reduced the size of cell-phones, allowing them to be more compact and to fit into our pockets without the need for a protruding antenna.

Dimensions without Limit
In the pursuit and discovery of fractals, Mandelbrot had looked where no others had dreamed or even thought but he was able to do so because he had two things in his favor. The first was his remarkable ability and intuition to see something where others had not. In the words of the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, he saw “no limits to dimensions”. But there was another. Mandelbrot’s time at IBM also gave him access to their computing resources and with it, he was able to experiment and perform the highly repetitive tasks and calculations needed to generate the images he had seen in his mind’s eye and in so doing, Mandelbrot discovered something so fundamental about nature that it affects us all in ways that are still being discovered. But Fractals aren’t just seen in nature. They aren’t just in the shapes of trees, ice crystals, clouds or ferns. They are everywhere and affects the behavior and movement of everything from the movement of stock market prices, to the distribution of earthquakes. The Greeks believed that the beauty of nature could be described through smoothness and symmetry and anything else was ugly and indescribable. Mandelbrot took this a huge step further and showed us the beauty of those little pits, bumps and wiggles and in so doing, changed the way we look at the world.

Fractals and Communication
We seldom think about our cell-phones or, at least, what’s inside or even how it works. But many of us would agree that we would be completely lost without these tiny devices that can fit in our pockets. But one of the more remarkable and recent application of fractals is in their use as antennas in high frequency radios and cell-phones. The frequencies and the power an antenna transmits at depends largely on the physical size of an antenna. In 1988, Boston University professor and ham radio enthusiast Nathan Cohen faced a particular problem. The apartment he lived had restrictions on the size of antennas he could hang outside his window for his ham radio. Cohen, having read about fractals was fascinated by their “space-filling” nature which fits an infinitely long line into a small space. He thought an antenna based on this design would squeeze a physically large antenna into a small package and, if successful, he could pursue his hobby and not get thrown out his apartment. Many CB operator knows, antennas are most efficient at a particular frequency or resonant mode, typically 27MHz or channel 4 in the US. For channels


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Figure 5: Fractal Fern showing self-similarity. Fern starts with a basic shape and builds into something more complex.



Figure 6: Fractals abound in nature. The clouds show fractal dimension as do the trees. The frost crystals formed on glass shows fractal structure (both from Wikipmedia Commons)


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Figure 7: Antenna based on a triangular fractal called the Sierpinski gasket. Each colored section of the antenna represents a particular mode or frequency at which it operates.

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