Saturday, 16 October 2010

Introducing Fractals: a graphic guide – Nigel Lesmoir-Gordon, Will Rood & Ralph Edney ***

It is almost impossible to rate these relentlessly hip books – they are pure marmite*. The huge Introducing … series (a vast range of books covering everything from Quantum Theory to Islam), previously known as … for Beginners, puts across the message in a style that owes as much to Terry Gilliam and pop art as it does to popular science. Pretty well every page features large graphics with speech bubbles that are supposed to emphasise the point.
Fractals are, without doubt, fun and fascinating, and this little book brings out what they are and why they are so remarkable. (Fractals are complex geometric forms produced by (often) fairly simple mathematical processes that behave rather strangely. Fractals often resemble natural forms, like trees or mountains.)
The first half of the book takes us through the origins of fractals, and really works well. In some of the books in this series the abundant illustrations get in the way of the message. Here, while they lack some of the energetic madness of some titles, they are absolutely essential to get the subject across, and do that very effectively.
I’m less happy with the second half of the book where, once we’ve got to the Mandelbrot set (a rather more complex but particularly strange fractal form), we are bombarded with hypothetical applications of fractals. After a while, the repeated message of ‘this is a fractal’ and ‘that’s fractal’ and ‘you could use fractals to do this’ becomes wearing. This is indeed the wonder of fractals – they are very common in nature. But the implication is ‘and this will do wonderful things for us’, which I’m not sure is the case. Fractals seem to be largely descriptive rather than useful.
One example I know something about – the authors get excited by Michael Barnsley’s fractal compression algorithms, which they seem to believe will transform the way we store images. I thought this too in the 1990s, when I used to use fractal compression to store photos on the limited hard discs of the day. But since then it is JPEG that has dominated the market, and fractal compression has all but disappeared. This book, written in 2000, predicts a (fractal?) trend that really hasn’t happened.
So, it’s a book of two halves. The second half is a bit of a let down. One of the key concepts of fractals is that of self similarity. If you take a bit of a fractal, it resembles the whole (think of a branch of a tree looking a bit like a tree). Unfortunately, too much of the second half is self similar. But I would say the book is worth reading for the first half alone.
*Marmite? If you are puzzled by this assessment, you probably aren’t from the UK. Marmite is a yeast-based product (originally derived from beer production waste) that is spread on bread/toast. It’s something people either love or hate, so much so that the company has run very successful TV ad campaigns showing people absolutely hating the stuff…
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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