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Who doesn't like fractals? They're a
beautiful blend of simplicity and
complexity often including these
infinitely repeating patterns.
Programmers in particular tend to be
especially fond of them, because it often takes
a shockingly small amount of code to
produce images that are way more
intricate than any human hand ever could
hope to draw. But a lot of people don't
actually know the definition of a
fractal; at least not the one that Benoit
Mandelbrot, the father fractal geometry,
had in mind. A common misconception is
the fractals are shapes that are perfectly
self-similar. For example this snowflake
looking shape right here called the Von
Koch snowflake, consists of three
different segments, and each one of these
is perfectly self-similar, in that when
you zoom in on it, you get a perfectly
identical copy of the original. Likewise
the famous Sierpinski triangle consists
of three smaller identical copies of
itself. And don't get me wrong, self-similar
shapes are definitely beautiful,
and they're a good toy model for what
fractals really, are but Mandelbrot had a
much broader conception in mind, one
motivated not by beauty, but by a more
pragmatic desire to model nature in a
way that actually captures roughness.
In some ways, fractal geometry is a
rebellion against calculus, whose central
assumption is that things tend to look
smooth if you zoom in far enough.
But Mandelbrot saw this is overly idealized,
or at least needlessly idealized,
resulting in models that neglect the
finer details of the thing that they're
actually modeling, which can matter!
What he observed is that self similar shapes
give a basis for modeling the regularity
in some forms of roughness. But the
popular perception that fractals only
include perfectly self similar shapes is
another over-idealization, one that
ironically goes against the pragmatic
spirit of fractal geometry is origins.
The real definition of fractals has to
do with this idea of fractal dimension
the main topic of this video. You see,
there is a sense, a certain way to define
the word dimension, in which the
Sierpinski triangle is approximately 1.585
dimensional; that the Von Koch curve
is approximately 1.262-dimensional;
the coastline of Britain turns out to be
around 1.21-dimensional.
And in general, it's possible
to have shapes whose dimension is any
positive real number, not just whole
numbers. I think when i first heard
someone reference fractional dimension
like this I just thought it was nonsense,
right? I mean, mathematicians are clearly
just making stuff up. Dimension is
something that usually only makes sense
for natural numbers, right? A line is
one-dimensional; a plane, that's two
dimensional; this space that we live in,
that's three dimensional, and so on.
And in fact, any linear algebra students who
just learned the formal definition of
dimension in that context would agree, it
only makes sense for counting numbers.
And of course the idea of fractal
dimension is just made up.
I mean, this is math, everything is made up.
But the question is whether or not it
turns out to be a useful construct for
modeling the world. And I think you'll
agree, once you learn how fractal
dimension is defined, it's something that
you start seeing almost everywhere that
you look. It actually helps to start the
discussion here by only looking at
perfectly self similar shapes. In fact
I'm going to start with four shapes, the
first three of which aren't even
fractals: A line, a square, a cube, and a
Sierpinski triangle. All of these shapes are
self-similar. A line can be broken up
into two smaller lines, each of which is
a perfect copy of the original just
scaled down by a half. A square can be
broken down into four smaller squares
each of which is a perfect copy of the
original just scaled down by a half.
Likewise, a cube can be broken down into
eight smaller cubes, again
each one is a scaled-down version by
one-half. And the core characteristic of
the Sierpinski triangle is that it's
made of three smaller copies of itself,
and the length of the side of one of
those smaller copies is one-half the
side length of the original triangle.
It's fun to compare how we measure these.
We would say that the smaller line
is one half the length of the original
line, the smaller square is one-quarter
the area of the original square, the
small cube is one eighth the volume of the
original cube and that smaller
sierpinski triangle...
..well we'll talk about how to measure
that in just a moment. What I want is a
word that generalizes the idea of length,
area and volume,
but which I can apply to all of those
shapes and more. Typically in math, the
word that you use for this is "Measure",
but i think it might be more intuitive
to talk about "mass". As in, imagine that
each of these shapes is made out of
metal: A thin wire, a flat sheet, a solid
cube, and some kind of Sierpinski
mesh. Fractal dimension has everything to
do with understanding how the mass of
these shapes changes as you scale them.
The benefit of starting the discussion
with self-similar shapes is that it
gives us a nice clear-cut way to compare
masses. When you scale down that line by
one half, the mass is also scaled down by
one-half, which you can viscerally see
because it takes two copies of that
smaller one to form the whole. When you
scale down a square by one-half, its
mass is scaled down by one fourth, where
again you can see this by piecing
together four of the smaller copies to
get the original. Likewise, when you scale
down that cube by one half, the mass is
scaled down by one eighth, or one-half cubed,
because it takes eight copies of that
smaller cube to rebuild the original.
And when you scale down this Sierpinski
triangle by a factor of a half,
wouldn't you agree that it makes sense
to say that its mass goes down by a
factor of one-third? I mean, it takes
exactly three of those smaller ones to
form the original. But notice that for
the line, the square, and the cube, the
factor by which the mass changed is this
nice clean integer power of one half.
In fact that exponent is the dimension of
each shape. And what's more, you could say
that what it *means* for a shape to be, for example,
two-dimensional, what puts the
"two" in two-dimensional, is that when you
scale it by some factor, its mass is
scaled by that factor raised to the
second power.
And maybe what it means for a shape to
be three-dimensional is that when you
scale it by some factor, the mass is
scaled by the *third* power of that factor.
So if this is our conception of dimension,
what should the dimensionality of the
Sierpinski triangle be? You want to say
that when you scale it down by a factor
of one-half, its mass goes down by
one half to the power of... well whatever its
dimension is. But because it's self-similar,
we know that we want the mass to go
down by a factor of one third. So what's
the number D such that raising one half
to the power of D gives you one third?
Well, that's the same as asking to 2 to the what
equals 3, the quintessential type of
question that logarithms are meant to
answer. And when you go and plug-in
log base two of 3 to a calculator, what
you'll find is that it's about 1.585. so
in this way, this Sierpinski triangle is
not one-dimensional, even though you
could define a curve that passes through
all its points, and nor is it
two-dimensional, even though it lives in
the plane. Instead it's
1.585-dimensional. And if you want to
describe its mass, neither length nor
area seem like the fitting notions. If
you tried its length would turn out to
be infinite, and its area would turn out
to be 0. Instead what you want is
whatever the 1.585-dimensional
analog of length is. Here let's look at
another self-similar fractal, the Von
Koch curve. This one is composed of four
smaller identical copies of itself, each
of which is a copy of the original
scaled down by one third. So the scaling
factor is one-third, and the mass has
gone down by a factor of one-fourth.
That means the dimension should be some
number D so that when we raise one third
to the power of D it gives us one fourth.
Well that's the same as saying 3 to the
what equals four.
So you can go and plug into a calculator
log base 3 of 4, and that comes out to be
around 1.262
so in a sense of on curve is a
1.262-dimensional shape.
Here's another fun one. This is kind of
the right-angled version of the Koch
Curve. It's built up of eight scaled-down
copies of itself, where the scaling
factor here is one fourth.
So if you want to know its dimension it
should be some number D such that one fourth
to the power of D equals one eighth, the
factor by which the mass just decreased.
And in this case the value we want is
log base 4 of 8, and that's exactly three halves.
So evidently, this fractal is
precisely 1.5 dimensional. Does that kind
of makes sense? It's weird, but it's all
just about scaling and comparing masses
while you scale. What I've described
so far, everything up to this point is
what you might call "self-similarity
dimension". It does a good job making the
idea of fractional dimension seem at
least somewhat reasonable, but there's a
It's not really a general notion. I mean,
when we were reasoning about how the
mass of a shape should change, it relied on
the self similarity of the shapes; that
you could build them up from smaller
copies of themselves. But that seems
unnecessarily restrictive. After all, most
two-dimensional shapes are not at all
self-similar. Consider the disk, the
interior of a circle. We know that it's
two-dimensional, and you can say that this is
because when you scale it up by a factor
of 2, its mass (proportional to the area)
gets scaled by the square of that factor,
in this case four. But it's not like
there's some way to piece together four
copies of that smaller circle to rebuild
the original. So how do we know that the
bigger disk is exactly four times the
mass of the original? Answering that
requires a way to make this idea of mass
a little more mathematically rigorous,
since we're not dealing with physical
objects made of matter, are we? We're
dealing with purely geometric ones
living in an abstract space.
There's a couple ways to think about
this, but here is a common one. Cover the
plane with the grid and highlight all of
the grid squares that are touching the
disk. Now count how many there are. In
the back of our minds, we already know
that a disk is two-dimensional, and the
number of grid squares that it touches
should be proportional to its area. A
clever way to verify this empirically is
to scale up that disk by some factor,
like two, and count how many grid squares
touch this new scaled-up version. You
should find is that that number has
increased approximately in proportion to
the square of our scaling factor, which
in this case means about four times as
many boxes.
Well...admittedly what's on the screen
here might not look that convincing, but
it's just because the grid is really
coarse. If instead you took a much finer
grid, one that more tightly captures the
intent we're going for here by measuring
the size of the circle, that relationship
of quadrupling the number of boxes
touched when you scale the disk by a
factor of two should shine through more
I'll admit, though, that when I was
animating this I was surprised by just
how slowly this value converges to 4.
Here's one way to think about this: If
you were to plot the scaling factor
compared to the number of boxes that the
scaled disk touches, your data should very
closely fit a perfect parabola, since the
number of boxes touched is roughly
proportional to the square of the
scaling factor. For larger and larger
scaling values, which is actually
equivalent to just looking at a finer
grid, that data is going to more
perfectly fit that parabola. Now getting
back to fractals, let's play this game
with the Sierpinski triangle, counting
how many boxes are touching points in
that shape. How would you imagine that
number compares to scaling up the
triangle by a factor of 2 and counting
the new number of boxes touched?
Well, the proportion of boxes touched by
the big one to the number of boxes touched
by the small one should be about three.
After all, that bigger version is just
built up of three copies of the smaller
version. You could also think about this
as two raised to the dimension of the
fractal, which we just saw is about 1.585.
And so if you were to go and plot the
scaling factor in this case against the
number of boxes touched by the
Sierpinski triangle, the data would
closely fit a curve with the shape of
y= x^(1.585), just multiplied by some
proportionality constant. But importantly,
the whole reason that i'm talking about
this is that we can play the same game
with non-self-similar shape that still
have some kind of roughness.
The classic example here is the coastline of
Britain. If you plop that coastline into
the plane and count how many boxes are
touching it, then scale it by some
amount and count how many boxes are
touching that new scaled version, what
you'd find is that the number of boxes
touching the coastline increases
approximately in proportion to the
scaling factor raised to the power of
1.21. Here, it's kind of fun to think
about how you would actually compute
that number empirically. As in, imagine I
give you some shape, and you're savvy
programmer. How would you find this
What I'm saying here is that if you
scale this shape by some factor, which
I'll call "s" the number of boxes touching
that shape should equal some constant times
that scaling factor raised to whatever
the dimension is; the value that we're
looking for.
Now if you have some data plot that
closely fits a curve that looks like
the input raised to some power, it can be
hard to see exactly what that power
should be, so a common trick is to take
the logarithm of both sides. That way, the
dimension is going to drop down from the
exponent and we'll have a nice clean
linear relationship. What this suggests
is that if you were to plot the log of
the scaling factor against the log of
the number of boxes touching the
coastline, the relationship should look
like a line, and that line should have a
slope equal to the dimension. So what
that means is that if you tried out a
whole bunch of scaling factors, counted
the number of boxes touching the coast
in each instant, and then plotted the
points on the log-log plot, you could
then do some kind of linear regression
to find the best fit line to your data
set, and when you look at the slope of
that line, that tells you the empirical
measurement for the dimension of what
you're examining. I just think that makes
this idea fractal dimension so much more
real and visceral compared to abstract
artificially perfect shapes. And once
you're comfortable thinking about
dimension like this,
you my friend have become ready to hear
the definition of a fractal. Essentially,
fractals are shapes whose dimension is not an
integer but instead some fractional
What's cool about that is that it's a
quantitative way to say that they're
shapes that are rough, and they stay
rough even as you zoom in.
Technically, there's a slightly more
accurate definition, and I've included it in
the video description, but this idea here
of a non-integer dimension almost
entirely captures the idea of roughness
that were going for.
There is one nuance, though, that I
haven't brought up yet but is worth
pointing out, which is that this
dimension, at least as I've described it so far
using the box counting method, can
sometimes change based on how far
zoomed in you are. For example here's a
shape sitting in three dimensions which
at a distance looks like a line. In 3d, by
the way, when you do a box counting you
have a 3d grid full of little cubes
instead of little squares, but it works
the same way. At the scale where the
shape's thickness is smaller than the
size of the boxes,
it looks one-dimensional, meaning the
number of boxes it touches is
proportional to its length. But when you
scale it up it starts behaving a lot
more like a tube, touching the boxes on
the surface of that tube, and so it'll
look two dimensional, with the number of
boxes touched being proportional to the
square of the scaling factor. But it's
not really a tube, it's made of these
rapidly winding little curves, so once
you scale it up even more, to the point
where the boxes can pick up on the
details of those curves, it looks
one-dimensional again, with the number of
boxes touched scaling directly in
proportion to the scaling constant. So
actually assigning a number to a shape
for its dimension can be tricky and it
leaves room for differing definitions
and different conventions. In a pure math
setting there are indeed numerous
definitions for dimension, but all of
them focus on what the limit of this
dimension is at closer and closer zoom
You can think of that in terms of the
plot as the limit of this slope as you
move farther and farther to the right.
So for a purely geometric shape to be a
genuine fractal, it has to continue
looking rough even as you zoom in
infinitely far. But in a more applied
setting, like looking at the coastline of
Britain, it doesn't really make sense to
talk about the limit as you zoom in more
and more. I mean at some point you'd just
be hitting atoms. Instead what you do is
you look at a sufficiently wide range of
scales from very zoomed out up to very
zoomed in, and compute the dimension at
each one. And in this more applied
setting, a shape is typically considered
to be a fractal only when the measured
dimension stays approximately constant,
even across multiple different scales.
For example, the coastline of Britain
doesn't just look 1.21-dimensional at
a distance. Even if you zoom in by a
factor of a thousand, the level of
roughness is still around 1.21. That
right there is the sense in which many
shapes from nature actually are self-similar
albeit not perfect
self-similarity. Perfectly self-similar
shapes do play an important role in
fractal geometry. What they give us are
simple-to-describe low-information
examples of this phenomenon of roughness;
roughness that persists at many
different scales and arbitrarily close
scales. And that's important! It gives us
the primitive tools for modeling these
fractal phenomena. But I think it's also
important not to view them as the
prototypical examples of fractals, since
fractals in general actually have a lot
more character to them.
I really do think that this is one of
those ideas where once you learn it, it
makes you start looking at the world
completely differently. What this number
is, what this fractional dimension gives
us, is a quantitative way to describe
roughness. For example the coastline of
Norway is about 1.52-dimensional,
which is a numeric away to communicate
the fact that it's *way* more jaggedy than
Britain's coastline. The surface of a
calm ocean might have a fractal
dimension only barely above two, while a
stormy one might have a dimension closer
to 2.3. In fact, fractal dimension doesn't
just arise frequently in nature, it seems
to be the core differentiator between
objects that arise naturally and those
that are just man-made.
For the final animation here I have a
certain whimsical pi creature fractal I
want to show you. But first I want to
thank the supporters of this channel.
Foremost are those of you contributing on
patreon. Supporters are getting early
access to essence of calculus videos as
I make them, and it's been really nice
having a collection of thoughtful early
viewers to provide feedback. This
particular video was also supported in
part by Affirm. They're this financial tech
company, where I actually used to work,
and these days they're growing a ton.
They're always looking to hire talented
software engineers and data scientists,
and I know that a lot of you out there
watching a video about fractal dimension
just for fun
are that technical talent. Like I said, in
a former life, before I went more into
math, I was actually on their data
science team, and I can tell you the
people there are incredible. I mean, i've
worked with smart teams before, but
Affirm has an unusual concentration of
brilliant minds and technology. I think
it's one of those things where smart
minds tend to attract other smart minds
in this positive feedback loop,
you know what I mean? They're tackling
consumer credit in a pretty novel way
that no one else seems to be doing, and
they can always benefit from a few more
skilled people to help them just do what
they're doing. If you're interested in
applying, I've included a link that's on
the screen and in the description to
their careers page, and this is kind of a
special link, in that if you apply by
first going through that page, it will
let both me and Affirm know that you
heard about them through this video. It's
basically just a way to track the
efficacy of outreach like this, so even
if you don't apply immediately and
instead come back a few days later, it
would help out for clean data's sake if
you still went through that page. So you
should definitely check them out, and
here is that final animation that I
promise you.