Tag Archives: Lesson Recap

Fractals & Chaos Recap for 10/21

In class today, we derived a new method for finding a dimension of a fractal, the method proposed by Mandelbrot in his article and originally conceived of by mathematician and meteorologist Lewis Fry Richardson.  We observed that if we make a “log-log” plot (a so-called “Richardson plot”) of the step sizes and counts of steps that “fit” in a curve, the distribution of points comes out to a roughly linear association, the slope of which is the dimension of the fractal.

We concluded class today by testing this theory to find the dimension of a circle, the results of which can be found here.

We also got a new book, Fractals: The Patterns of Chaos, and our first reading assignment: pages 61-73 (on fractal dimension)

Fractals & Chaos Recap for 10/18

If you have a compass (the circle-drawing kind) please bring it with you to class over the next few days.

We discussed Mandelbrot’s Article, then used it to segue into a further discussion of dimension. As we are aware, we still have problems with the Hausdorff dimension formula for calculating dimension of fractals. It can’t handle fractals with stems (i.e., non-iterating segments that never disappear) and with fractals that are not exactly self-symmetric.

Today, we considered a football field, a circle, and a Koch Curve, and looked at how the size of the measuring stick we use to measure the length or perimeter of such things has an impact on the total amount of length we actually calculate. For a football field, the size of the stick makes no difference. We’ll be obtaining 100 yards worth of length even if we use a foot (S = 3) or an inch (S = 36) as our step size.

For a circle, this isn’t the case. Use a measuring stick the length of the diameter, and we can only make two steps before we end where we started. Use a stick the size of the radius (S = 2) and we can make 6 such steps (resulting in a measure of three diameters). Use a half-radius (S = 4), and we wind up with a total length of slightly more than 3 diameters. There is a limit to this, of course: pi*d, which is precisely the formula for the circumference of a circle.

For the Koch Curve, the story is very different. Use a step size the length of the original baseline, and we can make one step. Use a step size of 1/3 the baseline (S = 3), we can make 4 steps, giving a length of 4/3 the base. Use a step size of 1/9 the baseline (S = 9), and we can make 16 steps, for a total length of 16/9 the base. As we shrink the length of the ruler we use, the number of steps increases more quickly, and so the total length increases without bound.

We’ve seen suggestions at this idea before. In the second article we read (The Diversity of Life), we saw that reducing the scale of our perspective dramatically increases the amount of living space we can find. This idea is also found at the center of the coastline paradox, hinted at in the Ants in Labyrinths article (see also this blog post from UK Urban Planner Alasdair Rae)

We will be expanding on this in class tomorrow, including a discussion on what all this has to do with the dimension of what we’re measuring.

Fractals & Chaos Recap for 10/16

One more chance to sign up for snacks for tomorrow’s Fractal Art Show!

In class today, we finished up the dimension classwork sheet and practiced how the segments of each fractal design that you measure to calculate its dimension can be used to recreate the fractal in FractaSketch (aka “stealing the template”). Neat!

We also have an important reading assignment: By Friday, October 18, please read Mandelbrot’s revolutionary paper that sparked the recognition of fractals and fractal geometry How Long is the Coast of Britain? You might also want to read this version, where Mandelbrot himself explains how he originally wrote this paper as a “Trojan Horse” to introduce his vision of fractal dimension into the scientific community conversation.

Fractals & Chaos Recap for 10/4

We spent the day working on FractaSketch. Your submissions for the Fractal Art Show are due next Friday, October 11. Remember, I expect from each of you one entry in three of the following categories:

  • Fern
  • Tree (or shrubs, bushes, weeds, etc.)
  • Spiral
  • Realistic (other natural phenomena)
  • Artistic (patterns, designs, etc.)

Again, each student will be submitting three entries, each falling in a separate category. You are welcome to submit more designs if you would like, but they will be placed in a separate “Additional Works” category.

In addition, I will want you to submit the template for one of those official submissions for a template/design matching challenge.

Please feel free to work on your designs outside of class and transfer them to the laptops we’ve been using in class.

For Monday, please read this recent piece from The Atlantic (Why Fractals Are So Soothing)

Fractals & Chaos Recap for 9/27

We started class with a writing/discussion prompt based on Haldane’s On Being the Right Size, a response to the meme “Would you rather fight one horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses?” The horse-sized duck won the argument, as an application of the central takeaway from Haldane’s article is that artificially scaling a duck up to the size of a horse would increase its weight exponentially faster than its strength could accommodate, resulting in a duck incapable of walking around, let alone flight. We followed this up with a relevant Kurzgesagt (In a Nutshell) video: What Happens if we Throw and Elephant From a Skyscraper (as promised, the follow up — How to Make an Elephant Explode — can be found here).

In the second half of the period, we continued our discussion of the dimension of the various fractals found on our first dimension practice sheet. We found that one of the templates was a cleverly disguised version of the Sierpinski Carpet, and that another–Sierpinski’s Pyramid–has the interesting property of being simultaneously defined as having 1, 2, or 3 dimensions, depending on what type of dimension you use.

Monday, we go back to the computer lab to work on our fractal designs. By Tuesday, read Size and Shape, paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould‘s follow up to Haldane’s essay. If Gould’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he co-developed the idea of (and coined the term for) punctuated equilibrium, a theory of evolution.

Fractals & Chaos Recap for 9/26

We discussed Ivars Peterson’s Ants in Labyrinths at the start of class, noting some interesting passages and talking about questions we had. In particular, I made a note to remember the part towards the beginning, where Peterson suggests an interesting problem with measuring a particular coastline:

Finer and finer scales reveal more and more detail and lead to longer and longer coastline lengths. On a world globe, the eastern coast of the United States looks like a fairly smooth line that stretches somewhere between 2000 and 3000 miles. The same coast on an atlas page showing only the United States […] seems more like 4000 or 5000 miles. […] A person walking along the coastline, staying within a step of the water’s edge, would have to scramble more than 15,000 miles to complete the trip.

This is an important idea. Remember it! We’ll be revisiting it later in the course.

The rest of our time in class was spent working on our fractal designs in FractaSketch. Don’t forget the expectations for the soon-to-be-announced Fractal Art Show! I expect from each of you one entry in three of the following categories:

  • Fern
  • Tree (or shrubs, bushes, weeds, etc.)
  • Spiral
  • Realistic (other natural phenomena)
  • Artistic (patterns, designs, etc.)

Again, each student will be submitting three entries, each falling in a separate category. You are welcome to submit more designs if you would like, but they will be placed in a separate “Additional Works” category.

Please feel free to work on your designs outside of class and transfer them to the laptops we’ve been using in class.

Homework: Read On Being the Right Size, an essay written by biologist JBS Haldane in 1926. We will discuss this reading tomorrow. As you read, ask yourself this classic question from the Internet: “Which would you rather fight: one horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses?”

Fractals & Chaos Recap for 9/24

We practiced finding dimension with our new definition for a few additional fractals, including seeing a surprising result with the Dragon Curve, then spent the remaining time working on our fractal designs in lab.

For class on Thursday, please read the passage Ants in Labyrinths, from Ivars Peterson’s The Mathematical Tourist. As usual, make a note of questions you have and passages you think are significant.

Two videos from our conversation in class:

Fractals & Chaos Lesson Recap for 9/23

We wrapped up Thursday’s lesson with an explanation of the idea of the Hausdorff Dimension of a fractal. In brief, the Hausdorff Dimension is the solution to the equation S^d = N, where S is the scale by which a fractal is being broken up into pieces, and N is the number of such pieces. So for the Sierpinski Triangle, we cut the original triangle into pieces that are all half the length of the original (S = 2), but keep 3 of those pieces. Solving the equation 2^d = 3 gives d ≈ 1.585, which is the Hausdorff dimension of the Sierpinski Triangle. For the Koch Curve, we get the equation 3^d = 4, producing d ≈ 1.26, and for the Cantor Set, we get 3^d = 2, so d ≈ 0.631.

For homework, you’ve been asked to think about the dimension of the Dragon Curve, and have been reminded that the base template for the curve involves a right isosceles triangle, as well as to design a fractal called the Sierpinski Carpet (essentially the same design as the Sierpinski Triangle, but with a square as the starting shape) and to find the dimension of that.

Fractals & Chaos Recap for 9/19

Today was an important day.

We continued a thought started yesterday, acknowledging the difference between intrinsic dimension—the dimension of an object itself—and extrinsic dimension—the dimension of the space the object occupies. For example, the edge of a circle is one dimensional, since there is only one axis of movement around the circle, but the circle exists in two dimensional space. We further observed that the extrinsic/containing dimension of an object must necessarily be greater than or equal to the intrinsic dimension of the space.

We also discussed how the dimension of an object affects the dimension with which we can measure it. We cannot find the volume of a square, and we can’t find the area of a cube. Put another way, if we tried to use a cubic centimeter measuring device to measure the area of a circle, we’d end with a measure of zero. And if we tried to use a square centimeter measuring device to measure the volume of a cube, we’d get a measure of infinity. In general, too small a dimension of measure results in a measure of infinity, and too large a dimension results in zero.

Finally, we considered the implications of this to the Sierpinski Triangle. When we attempted to measure the area of the Sierpinski triangle, we resulted in a measure of zero (an infinity of triangles each with area zero results in a total area of zero). When we attempted to measure its length, we resulted in a measure of infinity (an infinity of segments each with length zero results in a total length of infinity). Thus, 2 is too high a dimension to describe the Sierpinski Triangle and 1 is too low. It must therefore mean that the dimension of the Sierpinski Triangle is strictly between 1 and 2, and is therefore fractional.


Of course, this raises an immediate question: If the dimension of the Sierpinski Triangle is somewhere between 1 and 2, what is it?

Fractals & Chaos Lesson Recap for 9/18

We had a short conversation about the nature of dimension in class today, after yesterday‘s wild results. In a quest to identify “true” two-dimensional entities in our world (since the conventional example of a piece of paper still does have some thickness), we observed that there may be a difference between “intrinsic” dimension, that is a characteristic of an object versus the “extrinsic” dimension of the space it occupies. For example, a desk is clearly a three dimensional object, but the surface of the desk could be thought of as 2D and the desk’s height could be considered 1D.

We resolved to think on this some more for a further conversation tomorrow, and transitioned to working some more with FractaSketch. I demonstrated how to make a fern using the program and made available some basic templates that you could use as inspiration for the upcoming 2019 Fractal Art Show.

The exact date of the art show will be determined later, but I will expect from each of you one entry in three of the following categories:

  • Fern
  • Tree (or shrubs, bushes, weeds, etc.)
  • Spiral
  • Realistic (other natural phenomena)
  • Artistic (patterns, designs, etc.)

Again, each student will be submitting three entries, each falling in a separate category.

Please feel free to work on your designs outside of class and transfer them to the laptops we’ve been using in class.

For tomorrow: continue to think about what the term “dimension” really means, per yesterday’s conversation.

Fractals & Chaos Lesson Recap for 9/17

Today something weird happened.

We’ve already seen the Sierpinski Triangle appear in two ways, by iterating the process of breaking a triangle into four equal pieces and removing the central one, and by coloring the even elements of Pascal’s triangle. Today we found a third way, by Iterating a Curve.

By starting with a solid, filled in triangle, and step-by-step removing stuff from that area, we reach the same exact figure as we get by starting with a simple line segment and lengthening/bending it. The area clearly starts as 2-dimensional, the line segment clearly starts as 1-dimensional. Yet both processes have the same end result. What does this mean for the dimension of Sierpinski’s Triangle? Is it 2D or 1D? It certainly can’t be both, so the only option is… neither?

When I first took this course (back in the days of Mr. Drix), this was the first moment where I realized all of this talk about fractional dimension may be more than nonsense. Maybe there’s something to it after all…

Your homework: think critically about what dimension really means. What does it mean to say something is 1-dimensional or 2-dimensional. We’ll dig into this in the next few days…

Fractals & Chaos Recap for 9/13

We looked briefly at Pascal’s Triangle today, and some of the neat patterns that can be found there. I hinted at some hidden fractals that could be found by removing numbers from the triangle, so your homework is to fill in circles in this smaller version that would represent removing every even number from the triangle (remember, we observed that two filled in circles create a filled in one, two empty circles create a filled in one, and an empty and filled circle create an empty one).

We wrapped up class by playing with FractaSketch some more (linked at left). Before everybody left, I also handed out the next assigned reading for the course: this Science News article from 1997 (Fractal past, Fractal future) and this supplementary article from a 1997 issue of Popular Science about the Heartsongs album mentioned in the first one.

Fractals & Chaos Recap for 9/12

We finished our discussion of the Sierpinski triangle, noting that just like the “final” version of the Koch Curve is “nothing but angles,” this geometric oddity is “nothing but edges,” as the area of the triangle converges to zero as the iterations continue. This conclusion also presented an interesting contradiction. For the Koch curve, we argued that an infinite number of segments, each of length zero, resulted in an infinite perimeter (effectively, ∞ * 0 = ∞). Here, we have an infinity of triangles, each again with an area of zero, resulting in an area of zero (effectively, ∞ * 0 = 0).

What this reveals is that the expression “∞ * 0” is what is called an Indeterminate Form, an expression the defies definition. We can create a reasonable argument that defines it as infinity, and we can create a just-as-reasonable argument that defines it as zero. Therefore, it must be defintionless.

We finished the day by opening up the PC laptop mobile lab and downloading FractaSketch to each device. We’ll be using this software extensively over the next few weeks!


Fractals & Chaos Recap for 9/11

We finished our discussion about the Cantor Set, noting that infinite set of endpoints that are left over with each segment removal are countably infinite. If the claim is that the cantor set is actually uncountable, that requires there to be other elements of the set that are not segment endpoints. And there are such points, uncountably infinitely many of them. See this post for more information on how this works.

We went on to draw a picture of the Koch Snowflake, a figure devised by Swedish mathematician Helge von Koch as an example of a continuous curve with no tangents. As the fractalization process continues, the number of segments that make its perimeter increases without bound, but the length of each segment shrinks to zero. Mathematically, however, the total perimeter also increases, resulting in a figure with finite area and infinite perimeter!

We ended the period by starting to draw an image of another fractal, called the Sierpinski Triangle. Start with an equilateral triangle (connect the dots in the worksheet), then bisect and connect all three sides. Fill in that middle triangle, effectively removing it and leaving you with three triangles at the three corners. Then do that process again for each of the three triangles: bisect the sides, connect them, and fill in the middle triangle. Do that as many steps as you can fit. Don’t cheat and look up what the final result looks like!

Fractals & Chaos Recap for 9/10

We continued our study of the Cantor set by spending some time thinking about its properties, in particular how it has a length of zero yet still has an (uncountable) infinity of points contained inside.

That the length is zero is fairly easy to see from the fact that we remove 1/3 of the set in the first step, 2/9 in the second, 4/27 in the third, 8/81 in the fourth, and so on. That sum 1/3 + 2/9 + 4/27 + 8/81 + … forms an infinite geometric series, the sum of which is 1. And since the length of the original segment is also 1, the length of the “final” version of the Cantor Set is 0.

Yet it clearly contains an infinity of points! With each stage, we create endpoints of segments that never get removed, and an infinite number of stages produces an infinite number of endpoints. But not only that, I claimed the Cantor set is uncountably infinite, which required some explanation of the realization that some infinities are bigger than other infinities.

Additional viewing:

Fractals & Chaos Recap for 9/9

We added to our list of fractals and discussed some observations from Wilson’s excerpt. We observed that dimension is tied to measurement, with lengths being one-dimensional, areas being two-dimensional, and volumes being three-dimensional. This suggests that any notion of fractional dimension must correspond to measurements that don’t fit within those three categories.

Furthermore, the article illustrated an interesting point (one that we will come back to soon): shrinking our scale of measurement increases the quantity of measurement we can find, disproportionate to the shrinking scale. The amount of space found at progressively smaller scales increases rapidly, and with it biodiversity.

After a brief distraction with a mouse, we introduced our first mathematical fractal: the Cantor Ternary Set, developed in 1883 by German mathematician Georg Cantor to challenge contemporary ideas of infinity and length. In particular, the set has three seemingly contradictory properties:

  • Every member of the set is a limit point
  • It has an uncountably infinite number of points
  • Yet its Length is zero

We will explore these ideas in the next few days.

Fractals & Chaos Recap for 9/6

We finished our discussion of the ideas inspired by the Jurassic Park excerpt, including looking at a few theories of using fractals to predict financial markets (see the silver and bitcoin articles here if you’d like to read them more closely).

From there, we discussed last night’s assigned reading and used it to form some properties about fractals. In particular:

  • They demonstrate self-symmetry or self-similarity (each part could be viewed as a scaled-down version of the whole thing)
  • They are Non-Euclidean (for a Euclidean curve, no matter how wiggly it is, zooming in far enough eventually makes it look linear, but for a fractal zooming in just reveals the same level of detail).
  • They have fractional dimension (unlike one-dimensional lines, two-dimensional squares, or three-dimensional cubes, fractals live in a space between and could have a non-integer dimension)

This last idea is, of course, pretty wild, and if you feel skeptical about it, you should. Hold on to that skepticism! Let me convince you.

We finished the day making a brief list of ideas of fractals, including snowflakes, ferns, feathers, trees, and river deltas. Your homework is twofold:

  1. Continue to think of examples of fractals in the world around you, and
  2. Read over the excerpt from Edward O Wilson’s book The Diversity of Life: Living Labyrinths.  As before, make a note of 2-3 passages that seems significant or questions you have.


Fractals & Chaos Recap for 9/5

We started out today with a discussion about course expectations. This is a pass/fail course but I still expect you to take it seriously. I will often ask you to read an article or do some math work at home, and I expect that work will be done the next day and ready to be discussed. I expect everyone to actively participate in class discussions and engage in the work we do during class time. This is not a study hall, so please don’t bring other work to do during this class or I will ask you to leave.

After a discussion of some of the pre-existing notions on what fractals are, we read an excerpt from Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park and discussed some of the big ideas to be found there (you can see a clip of this scene from Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film version here).

For your first reading assignment, I’m asking you to read the article distributed in class: Fractals: Magical Fun or Revolutionary Science, from the March 21, 1987 issue of Science News. Take some notes as you read, jotting down the 2 or 3 major points of the article.  Pay particular attention to how this article defines the term “fractal”.