Do fractals exist in nature?

What are fractals?

Fractals are objects in which the same patterns occur again and again at different scales and sizes.

In a perfect mathematical fractal – such as the famous Mandelbrot set, shown above – this “self-similarity” goes infinitely deep: each pattern is made up of smaller copies of itself, and those smaller copies are made up of smaller copies again, forever.

Where can we see fractals in nature?

Many natural phenomena are fractal to some degree. Below are images of some of the most striking fractals in nature.

Fractals in nature leaf
The network of veins that move fluids around inside a leaf shows clear fractal structure. The circulatory system of animals is similar. Credit: Paul Oomen / Getty
Fractals in nature snowflake
The six-fold symmetry of this snowflake, due to the microscopic crystal structure of ice, is repeated several times. The central hexagon sprouts six more rough hexagons, and the outer corners of those produce still more hexagonal outgrowths. Credit: Ian Cuming / Getty
Fractals in nature lichtenberg
This image produced by high-voltage electricity discharging through a non-conductive material, known as a Lichtenberg figure, shows repetitive self-similar branching characteristic of a fractal. Credit: Photo Researchers / Getty
Fractals in nature romanesco
Known as Romanesco cauliflower, Romanesco broccoli or even brocciflower, this relative of more common brassicas has a strikingly fractal appearance. The self-similar conical protrusions are composed of spiral on spiral of tiny buds. Credit: Fuhito Kanayama / Getty
Fractals in nature rivers
Braided glacial river channels in the southern Alps of New Zealand show large and small scale branching and recombination. Credit: David Clapp / Getty
Fractals in nature tree
In many trees, such as this sycamore, a central trunk forks into two or more branches which themselves fork again and again into thinner and thinner branches before finally terminating in tiny twigs. Seven or more levels of branching can be counted in this image. Credit: Berndt Fischer / Getty

Related Reading: The mystique of mathematics

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