In the late 1970s, an IBM research scientist named Mandelbrot looked at fluctuations in all kinds of phenomena, from the stock market to cloud formations. He came to the conclusion that these very different occurrences were related to one another, and that they revealed an underlying force that pervaded every aspect of life on earth.
In each of the events he studied, Mandelbrot found “self-similar” systems, which he called fractals. It is probably easier to picture a fractal than to define it. Or picture a month or two of a graph of the Down Jones averages. That’s a fractal pattern. Mandelbrot would posit that fractals are showing us a life principle, not unlike a yin-yang law, that underlies not only weather, stocks, and heartbeats but almost everything from the shape of ferns and fiords to the filigree in lungs and leaves.
If fractals reflect some universal designing set in nature, and if they are, in fact, the signatures of nature, then what are we to make of them?
During the Middle Ages, the Doctrine of Signatures held that the shape of any natural object, such as a leaf or root, held the key to its medicinal use. Modern fractal theory posits a not so dissimilar view – that patterns might not only hold the key to understanding the rhythm but also the purpose and meaning of phenomena. Some analysts believe that fractals could hold the secret key to the universe, explain the ultimate causes not only of our personal decisions but of the outside forces that influence them.
So, in a way, all of the ups and downs of nature and of our lives are part of what Mandelbrot would call “self-similar” systems. Do they all have meaning? What is their connection?
This is Bill Felker with Poor Will’s Almanack. I’ll be back again next week with notes for the third week of early spring. In the meantime, follow the ups and downs, look for the patterns.