Fractals – A Very Short Introduction

Excerpt From: Falconer, Kenneth. “Fractals: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions).” iBooks.

Chapter 7
A little history

Geometry, with its highly visual and practical nature, is one of the oldest branches of mathematics. Its development through the ages has paralleled its increasingly sophisticated applications. Construction, crafts, and astronomy practised by ancient civilizations led to the need to record and analyse the shapes, sizes, and positions of objects. Notions of angles, areas, and volumes developed with the need for surveying and building. Two shapes were especially important: the straight line and the circle, which occurred naturally in many settings but also underlay the design of many artefacts. As well as fulfilling practical needs, philosophers were motivated by aesthetic aspects of geometry and sought simplicity in geometric structures and their applications. This reached its peak with the Greek School, notably with Plato (c 428–348 BC) and Euclid (c 325–265 BC), for whom constructions using a straight edge and compass, corresponding to line and circle, were the essence of geometric perfection.

As time progressed, ways were found to express and solve geometrical problems using algebra. A major advance was the introduction by René Descartes (1596–1650) of the Cartesian coordinate system which enabled shapes to be expressed concisely in terms of equations. This was a necessary precursor to the calculus, developed independently by Isaac Newton (1642–1727) and Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1714) in the late 17th century. The calculus provided a mathematical procedure for finding tangent lines that touched smooth curves as well as a method for computing areas and volumes of an enormous variety of geometrical objects. Alongside this, more sophisticated geometric figures were being observed in nature and explained mathematically. For example, using Tycho Brahe’s observations, Johannes Kepler proposed that planets moved around ellipses, and this was substantiated as a mathematical consequence of Newton’s laws of motion and gravitation.

The tools and methods were now available for tremendous advances in mathematics and the sciences. All manner of geometrical shapes could be analysed. Using the laws of motion together with the calculus, one could calculate the trajectories of projectiles, the motion of celestial bodies, and, using differential equations which developed from the calculus, more complex motions such as fluid flows. Although the calculus underlay Graph of a Brownian process8I to think of all these applications, its foundations remained intuitive rather than rigorous until the 19th century when a number of leading mathematicians including Augustin Cauchy (1789–1857), Bernhard Riemann (1826–66), and Karl Weierstrass (1815–97) formalized the notions of continuity and limits. In particular, they developed a precise definition for a curve to be ‘differentiable’, that is for there to be a tangent line touching the curve at a point. Many mathematicians worked on the assumption that all curves worthy of attention were nice and smooth so had tangents at all their points, enabling application of the calculus and its many consequences. It was a surprise when, in 1872, Karl Weierstrass constructed a ‘curve’ that was so irregular that at no point at all was it possible to draw a tangent line. The Weierstrass graph might be regarded as the first formally defined fractal, and indeed it has been shown to have fractal dimension greater than 1.

In 1883, the German Georg Cantor (1845–1918) wrote a paper introducing the middle-third Cantor set, obtained by repeatedly removing the middle thirds of intervals (see Figure 44). The Cantor set is perhaps the most basic self-similar fractal, made up of 2 scale copies of itself, although of more immediate interest to Cantor were its topological and set theoretic properties, such as it being totally disconnected, rather than its geometry. (Several other mathematicians studied sets of a similar form around the same time, including the Oxford mathematician Henry Smith (1826–83) in an article in 1874.) In 1904, Helge von Koch introduced his curve, as a simpler construction than Weierstrass’s example of a curve without any tangents. Then, in 1915, the Polish mathematician Wacław Sierpiński (1882–1969) introduced his triangle and, in 1916, the Sierpiński carpet. His main interest in the carpet was that it was a ‘universal’ set, in that it contains continuously deformed copies of all sets of ‘topological dimension’ 1. Although such objects have in recent years become the best-known fractals, at the time properties such as self-similarity were almost irrelevant, their main use being to provide specific examples or counter-examples in topology and calculus.

It was in 1918 that Felix Hausdorff proposed a natural way of ‘measuring’ the middle-third Cantor set and related sets, utilizing a general approach due to Constantin Carathéodory (1873–1950). Hausdorff showed that the middle-third Cantor set had dimension of log2/log3 = 0.631, and also found the dimensions of other self-similar sets. This was the first occurrence of an explicit notion of fractional dimension. Now termed ‘Hausdorff dimension’, his definition of dimension is the one most commonly used by mathematicians today. (Hausdorff, who did foundational work in several other areas of mathematics and philosophy, was a German Jew who tragically committed suicide in 1942 to avoid being sent to a concentration camp.) Box-dimension, which in many ways is rather simpler than Hausdorff dimension, appeared in a 1928 paper by Georges Bouligand (1889–1979), though the idea underlying an equivalent definition had been mentioned rather earlier by Hermann Minkowski (1864–1909), a Polish mathematician known especially for his work on relativity.

For many years, few mathematicians were very interested in fractional dimensions, with highly irregular sets continuing to be regarded as pathological curiosities. One notable exception was Abram Besicovitch (1891–1970), a Russian mathematician who held a professorship in Cambridge for many years. He, along with a few pupils, investigated the dimension of a range of fractals as well as investigating some of their geometric properties.

Excerpt From: Falconer, Kenneth. “Fractals: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions).” iBooks.



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