Fractals : the patterns of chaos : a new aesthetic of art, science, and nature /
John Briggs.
New York : Simon & Schuster, c1992.
192 p. : ill. (some col.) ; 31 cm.
0671742175 (pbk.) :
More Details
New York : Simon & Schuster, c1992.
0671742175 (pbk.) :
general note
"A Touchstone book."
Subtitle on cover: Discovering a new aesthetic of art, science, and nature.
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references (p. 187) and index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter

If the eye attempts to follow the flight of a gaudy butterfly, it is arrested by some strange tree or fruit; if watching an insect, one forgets it in the strange flower it is crawling over; if turning to admire the splendour of the scenery, the individual character of the foreground fixes the attention. The mind is a chaos of delight...

Charles Darwin,

writing home from hisBeaglevoyage on his impressions of the Brazilian tropical rain forest.

Hike into a forest and you are surrounded by fractals. The inexhaustible detail of the living world (with its worlds within worlds) provides inspiration for photographers, painters, and seekers of spiritual solace: the rugged whorls of bark, the recurring branching of trees, the erratic path of a rabbit bursting from underfoot into the brush, and the fractal pattern in the cacophonous call of peepers on a spring night.

The landscape is the crucible in which living forms have evolved, and since the landscape crackles with fractals, the forms bred there are fractal as well. Living creatures, from trees to beetles to whales, have shapes and behaviors that provide a fractal record of the dynamical forces (the endless feedback) that act upon them and within them, forces that have continually caused them to evolve new niches in which to live. In hisBoston Globenewspaper column, physicist and science writer Chet Raymo declared after seeing a museum exhibition of beetles, "Darwinian explanations are reasonable enough, but...the spectacular variability of beetles suggests that nature is infected by...a sheer lunatic exuberance for diversity, a manic propensity to try any damn thing that looks good or works."

The riotous beauty and dreamlike strangeness of nature provided a chief inspiration for Charles Darwin as he struggled to develop a coherent theory of evolution. Psychologist Howard Gruber, who has done a lengthy study of how Darwin arrived at his theory, says, "The meaning of his whole creative life work is saturated with...duality....

On the one hand, he wanted to face squarely the entire panorama of changeful organic nature in its amazing variety, its numberless and beautiful contrivances, and its disturbing irregularity and imperfections. On the other hand, he was imbued with the spirit of Newtonian science and hoped to find in this shimmering network a few simple laws that might explain the whole movement of nature." Darwin concludes his landmarkOrigin of Specieswith a striking metaphor of nature as "the tangled bank," reveling in what Gruber calls "the spectacle of complexity itself." Indeed, the pattern -- the image -- that gave Darwin his essential insight into how evolution works was a classic fractal: He conceived of the evolving forms of nature as an irregularly branching tree.

Examining Darwin's notebooks, Gruber carefully tracked Darwin's creative process to the moment when this image emerged in his thought. Gruber initially expected Darwin's mental processes on evolution would be "fine, clean, direct," but soon found that they were "tortuous, tentative, enormously complex." Gruber realized that "Darwin's picture of nature as an irregularly branching tree attributed to nature some of the characteristics I saw in his thinking."

According to Gruber, after considerable mental bifurcation Darwin reached a point where he drew in his notebook three tree diagrams which captured his insight that all creatures are related to one another through a process of branching pushed forward by natural selection. Darwin had found a simple law that could explain life's breathtaking complexity.

Through the ages artists have been driven by a desire to capture life's simultaneous complexity and simplicity in a single image or work. Some artists have created simple images with hugely complex overtones; others have spun out complex images that imply a simple order beneath. Artistic "truth" seems to involve presentation of adynamic balancebetween these two opposites. Darwin's admiration for complexity and his belief in the Newtonian model of simple natural laws brought him an important step toward the artist's aesthetic (sense of harmony and dissonance), but in the end the emphasis of evolutionary theory fell on the simplicity side of the equation -- on scientific law. Many of the scientists of chaos (though certainly not all) now seem bent on readjusting the balance. Accordingly, they are proclaiming a new dynamic that emphasizes how complexity can be wrought from simple rules while at the same time revealing a challenging new perception that the laws of complexity will forever prevent the kind of simple predictability and control over nature implied by the clockwork Newtonian model of the world that Darwin had admired.

Using simple mathematical rules, chaologists can now model complex dynamical systems, formulating rules to mimic on a computer such natural phenomena as the flocking pattern of birds flying to a roosting spot and the growing branch and leaf forms of specific flowers and trees. Chaos theory and fractal geometry have opened up undreamed of correspondences between the abstract mental realm of mathematics and the movements and shapes of our planet's myriad organisms. The seemingly endless niches in nature, for example, can now be perceived as an analogue for the intricate complexity which fractal geometers have found in the nooks and crannies of the Mandelbrot set. Indeed, the idea of niche itself can now be understood as a fractal idea.

Niche means a corner or space. Biologists have traditionally used the word to signify the little empty corner of an ecosystem that an organism evolves to fill; a niche presents an opportunity for evolution. If one species of cormorant nests on high cliffs with broad ledges and eats a certain kind of diet, another species will evolve with special characteristics that allow it to nest lower down on narrow ledges and eat a slightly different diet -- so the two species occupy different niches. In this traditional view, nature abhors a vacuum and will evolve new forms to fill it. But, in fact, the situation is considerably more subtle. An organism creates the niche it occupies as much as it iscreated bythe existence of an unexploited region of the ecosystem. New spaces or niches constantly come into being, unfolded by the total activity of organisms. When a species dies out, the fold (or niche) smooths over or is further crumpled into other folds. The great biological diversity on the planet is a sign that nature is continually rippling with new and related niches. It is like the surface of the sea wrinkling in the wind.

The constant crumpling of reality that we see in evolution takes place over millennia as species emerge and pass away, creating new landscapes, new environments, and new opportunities for new species. The old scientific concept of the "balance of nature" is quietly being replaced by a new concept of the dynamic, creative, and marvelously diversified "chaos of nature."

Copyright © 1992 by John Briggs

Excerpted from Fractals: The Patterns of Chaos by John Briggs
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.
Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Choice on 1993-05-01:
Barely a decade since the publication of Benoit B. Mandelbrot's The Fractal Geometry of Nature (1982), there are now books on fractals, chaos, and nonlinear processes numbering in the hundreds, some for the general reader, others targeted at special audiences ranging from mathematicians, natural scientists, and engineers, to economists, philosophers, and artists. The four volumes under review are indicative of this diversity. Moon's book is, perhaps, best suited for practicing engineers who wish to decide whether learning chaos theory will be relevant and profitable to their work. The many examples of engineering applications where chaos has been observed form the soul of the book. The noteworthy Chapter 2 offers broad heuristics for identifying chaotic phenomena in the laboratory. Actually a rewrite of the author's Chaotic Vibrations (CH, Jun'88), the book has grown to nearly twice its former size from the addition of exercises, new physical applications, and more mathematical explication. The mathematics remains vague, even though the reader must have some mathematical sophistication. As such, this book cannot be recommended for those who need to learn the details of the subject. The editing is haphazard. For example, one meets Feigenbaum's number, as though for the first time, on four occasions, the index noting only the first three. By contrast, Peitgen, Jurgens, and Saupe's book serves the mathematical neophyte who craves a deep knowledge of the mathematical foundations of chaos. This is an extremely leisurely, careful, detailed, copiously illustrated exposition. Not a popularization, it nevertheless should find the wide audience that is usually served only by diluted accounts. It is hard to think of another book like it, but then no other mathematical subject has ever so captured the public imagination. There is also much here for mathematically sophisticated readers and it is easy to find what interests one and to dig in. With its beautiful design, superb organization, and clear style, it is not premature to declare this book a classic. Some overlap notwithstanding, this volume does not supercede The Science of Fractal Images ed. by Peitgen and Saupe (CH, Mar'89) or Peitgen and P.H. Richter's The Beauty of Fractals (CH, Dec'86). Given the nearly one thousand pages, the low price is worthy of note. The raison d'etre of Field and Golubitsky's work must be the stunningly beautiful color plates of some new types of fractal images. The mathematical genesis of these images is the question that asks when the orbits of a dynamical system statistically exhibit the symmetries of the system as a whole. Remarkably, the answer may change from ^D" to ^D" as one varies a parameter-describing system; a real world example (that the authors leave underdeveloped) is wobbly train wheels that wear unevenly at slow speeds, evenly at high speeds. The abstract ideas, together with the basics of chaos theory and group theory, do receive a passable treatment, some in the text, some in technical appendixes that also give full details on the construction of the images. Unfortunately, the text is also full of uninspired generalities about symmetry and chaos and unconvincing comparisons with images from art and nature that bare superficial resemblance to these fractals. Finally, Briggs's is a popular account full of the grandiose ^D" posturing that gives chaos theory a bad name in some circles. Nevertheless, it does collate some interesting information and many fascinating and beautifully produced images. This book is not appropriate for academic libraries; this is the first book about fractals this reviewer has seen that does not contain a single equation. For coffee tables only. D. V. Feldman University of New Hampshire
This item was reviewed in:
Choice, May 1993
Booklist, December 1997
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Table of Contents
Introductionp. 13
A Planet of Living Fractalsp. 35
Of Camels, Straws, and Fractalsp. 43
The Fractals and Chaos of Outer Spacep. 49
Our Weather Today is Chaosp. 55
Between Things: Fractal Dimensionsp. 61
The Haunting Mandelbrot Setp. 73
Fractal Math Imitations, Both Fanciful and Realp. 83
Chaos and Symmetry Hybridsp. 93
Chaos Sculpts Fractal Landscapesp. 99
Spirals, Solitons, and Self-Organizing Chaosp. 107
Feedback and Iteration: The Heartbeat of Chaosp. 115
The Human Body is a Fractal Creationp. 123
The Folded Order of Turbulencep. 131
Visualizing Chaos as a Strange Attractorp. 137
The Art of Abstract Images from Fractal Mathp. 147
The New Geometry of Irregularityp. 157
Great Art's Fractal Secretsp. 165
Coda: Living with Unpredictability's Shapesp. 179
Creating Fractals on Home Computersp. 182
Contributors' Biographiesp. 184
Suggested Readingp. 187
Image Creditsp. 188
Indexp. 190
Table of Contents provided by Blackwell. All Rights Reserved.

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