The British coastline is infinite

News Oct 20, 2010 No Comments

“Few recent thinkers have woven such a beautiful braid of art and science as Benoît B Mandelbrot, who has died aged 85 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. […] Mandelbrot, who worked at IBM before becoming a professor at Yale, started thinking about irregular shapes by looking at maps of Great Britain. The squiggly shape of the UK mainland fascinated him and he wondered whether it was possible to make a mathematical model of its perimeter. Can you measure the British coastline? He discovered that you can at a distance, but that then the closer you look, the more you find. In a sense, the British coastline is “infinite”.

“Artists have been fascinated by geometry for as long as mathematicians have. The studies of Euclid are reflected in the regularities of classical and Renaissance architecture, from the Pantheon in Rome to the duomo in Florence. But artists and architects were also thinking centuries ago about non-regular, curving geometries. You could argue that fractals give us the mathematics of the Baroque – they were anticipated by Borromini and Bach. I have a facsimile, given away by an Italian newspaper, of part of Leonardo da Vinci’s Atlantic Codex, which contains page after page of his attempts to analyse the geometry of twisted, curving shapes.

“Mandelbrot was a modern Leonardo, a man who showed the beauty in nature. He was a prophet of the curving universe and gave us, in the endlessly playful geometry of fractals, a visual lexicon for our complex world…”

Read More: Benoît B Mandelbrot: the man who made geometry an art

Andrew Frost

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