Measuring

More than a decade after Richardson completed his work, Benoit Mandelbrot developed a new branch of mathematics, fractal geometry, to describe just such non-rectifiable complexes in nature as the infinite coastline.[9] His own definition of the new figure serving as the basis for his study is:

I coined fractal from the Latin adjective fractus. The corresponding Latin verb frangere means "to break:" to create irregular fragments. It is therefore sensible ... that, in addition to "fragmented" ... fractus should also mean "irregular."

A key property of the fractal is self-similarity; that is, at any scale the same general configuration appears. A coastline is perceived as bays alternating with promontories. In the hypothetical situation that a given coastline has this property of self-similarity, then no matter how greatly any one small section of coastline is magnified, a similar pattern of smaller bays and promontories superimposed on larger bays and promontories appears, right down to the grains of sand. At that scale the coastline appears as a momentarily shifting, potentially infinitely long thread with a stochastic arrangement of bays and promontories formed from the small objects at hand. In such an environment (as opposed to smooth curves) Mandelbrot asserts "coastline length turns out to be an elusive notion that slips between the fingers of those who want to grasp it."

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