Hunting the Hidden Dimension

By Nicholas Rougeux, posted on October 29, 2008 in Fractals

Just yesterday, PBS aired their latest NOVA show—Hunting the Hidden Dimension—about fractals and how they play a role in all our lives. It offers a nice overview of fractals for those who aren't familiar with the concept.

You can watch it on PBS's site for free. (By the time I found out about it, I had just missed the original air time by an hour. It would have been nice to see it in hi-def on TV but a free online version was just fine.) Videos discussing fractals are a rarity so something like this is is a nice surprise worth watching.


The show does a great job of giving an overview of fractals including how the Koch curve came to be and how they apply to kinds of industries from measuring a heart beat to understanding how a forest works from studing a single tree. It falls short in offering much more than that though.

It was interesting when it briefly touched on the formula Mandelbrot created that lead to the famous Mandelbrot set and how he discovered it while working with Gaston Julia's set. That helped draw a nice relationship between the two without getting too technical. It was also neat to see that fractal antennas are in many cell phones becuase of their efficiency.

It would have been nice if they covered more about the artistic side of fractals but I can understand why they didn't. One of the big challenges Mandelbrot faced when trying to prove the usefulness of fractal geometry was to prove fractals weren't just pretty shapes. You could argue that a separate documentary should be made just about those pretty shapes! Maybe after a nother 30 years, PBS might get on that and not just focus on the cliché psychadelic rainbow shapes. Despite the lack of artistic content, I did notice that a few of the short animations looked like they came straight from Ultra Fractal (the gradients were the most telling).

The companion pages for the show offer a few interesting tidbits including an interivew with Mandelbrot, a very basic tool for playing with the colors of the Mandelbrot set, and a piece that demonstrates the infinite complexity of fractals by zooming in on the set several times à la Powers of 10 (watch the video).

Overall, it's show worth watching and it was nice to see.

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