On The Impact Of Thinking Visually
What do Mandelbrot and Einstein have in common?
They were/are both math aficionados. But more importantly, they both laid down the foundations for thinking about abstract natural phenomena in a geometrical way. The impact was reverberating.
Before Einstein came along, people had no real sense of gravity at all. Yea sure, there was Newton’s universal law of gravitation. But no one really could make any sense whatsoever of how exactly gravity might operate. Was it a wave? If so, at what speed could it act? Was there something particulate about it? Gravity was so mystical. And as always, so have been the concepts of time and space. Einstein’s greatest achievement in my view is that not only was he able to lay out the underpinnings of such phenomena in the form of a couple of abstract equations, but perhaps more importantly, that he devised a method to think about them visually. In developing his theories of special and general relativity, Einstein proposed the idea of the space-time fabric. It has a 3-D structure, yet represents four dimensions – 3 in space and 1 in time. Gravity would result from distortions in this fabric. The speed with which gravity could influence an object would depend on how fast these distortions could travel. And this central notion of ‘distortions in a fabric’ would also influence our understanding of the more difficult to grasp concepts of time and space. Time and space could mean different things to different observers depending on how this fabric was warped or sliced.
Mandelbrot achieved the same thing with his theory of fractals. How can complex natural structures and phenomena be represented mathematically? How to mathematically model a plant, the form of a human or a mountain range? In spite of how incredibly difficult it all sounds, these complex shapes could all be simplified into repeating units of tiny yet geometrically simple components – fractals. Mandelbrot went on to write his epic, “The Fractal Geometry Of Nature” and there was no turning back. Suddenly so many of nature’s workings could now be analyzed mathematically. An immensely significant step for mankind indeed. What I find absolutely fascinating about fractals, is the discovery that many intangible natural phenomena also contain a fractal component. Dr. Ary Goldberger and his team of researchers at Harvard Medical School have been working on applying fractal theory to medicine and biology. For those of you who might not be familiar with Dr. Goldberger, the name might ring a bell if you’ve read his books on electrocardiography. For Dr. Goldberger, interest in electrocardiography runs in the family, his father having invented the augmented limb leads back in the day. Among some of the things I learned about his work on electrocardiography, is that his team has shown that there is a fractal nature to ECG waveforms! This isn’t something like representing the heart itself in fractal form. It’s the activities of the heart that we are talking about here. Something really quite abstract. By looking at these fractal patterns, one could potentially detect pathology at a much earlier stage. Fractal patterns and their aberrations could help detect diseases in ways that no one had ever imagined! If you want to dig what’s cool, check out what’s been going on in the world of fractals in medicine – from human vasculature, to the brain and beyond. A quick PubMed query would lead you to a lot of riveting literature on the topic. Don’t forget to also take a look at the excellent documentary on fractal theory from PBS NOVA, “Hunting The Hidden Dimensions“.
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