Whether or not you’ve heard of fractals before, the NOVA documentary, Hunting the Hidden Dimension, will amaze you with how cool they really are. A fractal is a geometric pattern that is repeated at smaller and smaller scales, producing shapes that can’t be represented by classical geometry. When mathematicians first started toying with the idea of fractals, they seemed so strange and foreign they were known as “monsters”. Now we see that they aren’t so foreign. In fact, they are everywhere – the branching of trees and blood vessels in our bodies, coastlines, clouds. Isn’t it amazing how even the strangest mathematical concepts seem to lead back to the natural world?
Hunting the Hidden Dimension is a fascinating look at fractals, covering the history of their study, from the 19th century, when they were known as “monsters”, to current applications, such as CGI and cell phone antennae. We also learn about the life and work of Benoit Mandelbrot, the man who developed fractal geometry as a field of mathematics and coined the term “fractal”, his advantage being that he came along at a time when computers were becoming available to tackle such problems. The “hidden dimension” in the title refers to the “fractal dimension”. You’ve heard of things being 2-dimensional or 3-dimensional, but fractal geometry can describe shapes with non-integer dimensions like 1.3 or 2.6.
I watched this documentary with my kids and I have shown clips of it to my after-school math group. The kids especially like seeing the beautiful images of the Mandelbrot set and seeing how fractals were used in the making of the latest Star Wars movies.
Hunting the Hidden Dimension is available for free on Hulu and is currently available on YouTube (embedded below).