The most well-known of the fractals is the infamous Mandelbrot set. It’s one of the first things that was really studied as a fractal. It was discovered by Benoit Mandelbrot during his early study of fractals in the context of the complex dynamics of quadratic polynomials the 1980s, and studied in greater detail by Douady and Hubbard in the early to mid-80s.
It’s a beautiful example of what makes fractals so attractive to us: it’s got an extremely simple definition; an incredibly complex structure; and it’s a rich source of amazing, beautiful images. It’s also been glommed onto by an amazing number of woo-meisters, who babble on about how it represents “fractal energies” – “fractal” has become a woo-term almost as prevalent as “quantum”, and every woo-site that babbles about fractals invariably uses an image of the Mandelbrot set. It’s also become a magnet for artists – the beauty of its structure, coming from a simple bit of math captures the interest of quite a lot of folks. Two musical examples are Jonathon Coulton and the post-rock band “Mandelbrot Set”. (If you like post-rock, I definitely recommend checking out MS; and a player for brilliant Mandelbrot set song is embedded below.)
So what is the Mandelbrot set?
Take the set of functions
where for each , is a complex constant. That gives an infinite set of simple functions over the complex numbers. For each possible complex number , you look at the recurrence relation generated by repeatedly applying , starting with :
If doesn’t diverge (escape) towards infinity as gets larger, then the complex number is a member of the Mandelbrot set. That’s it – that simple definition – repeatedly apply for complex numbers – produces the astonishing complexity of the Mandelbrot set.
If we use that definition of the Mandelbrot set, and draw the members of the set in black, we get an image like the one above. That’s nice, but it’s probably not what you expected. We’re all used to the beautiful colored bands and auras around that basic pointy black blob. Those colored regions are not really part of the set.
The way we get the colored bands is by considering *how long* it takes for the points to start to diverge. Each color band is an escape interval – that is, some measure of how many iterations it takes for the repeated application of to diverge. Images like the ones to the right and below are generated using various variants of escape-interval colorings.
My personal favorite rendering of the Mandelbrot set is an image called the Buddhabrot. In the Buddhabrot, what you do is look at values of which *aren’t* in the mandebrot set. For each point before it escapes, plot a point. That gives you the escape path for the value . If you take a large number of escape paths for randomly selected values of , and you plot them so that the brightness of a pixel is determined by the number of escape paths that cross that pixel, you get the Budddhabrot. It’s fascinating because it reveals the structure in a particularly amazing way. If you look at a simple unzoomed image of the madelbrot set, what you see is a spiky black blob; the actually complexity of the structure isn’t obvious until you spend some time looking at it. The Buddhabrot is more obvious – you can see the astonishing complexity much more easily.