Program Contact:

Craig Johnson, Ph.D.
Center for Natural and Health Science (CNHS) building, Room 319

(570) 348-6211 ext. 6291

Administrative Assistant:

Marcie Gaughan
Center for Natural and Health Science (CNHS) building, Room 320 A 
(570) 348-6265

What are Fractals?

A fractal is "a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole," a property called self-similarity.

The term fractal was coined by Benoît Mandelbrot in 1975 and was derived from the Latin fractus meaning "broken" or "fractured." A mathematical fractal is based on an equation that undergoes iteration, a form of feedback based on recursion.

A fractal often has the following features:

  • It has a fine structure at arbitrarily small scales.
  • It is too irregular to be easily described in traditional Euclidean geometric language.
  • It is self-similar (at least approximately or stochastically).
  • It has a Hausdorff dimension which is greater than its topological dimension (although this requirement is not met by space-filling curves such as the Hilbert curve).
  • It has a simple and recursive definition.


Because they appear similar at all levels of magnification, fractals are often considered to be infinitely complex. Natural objects that are approximated by fractals to a degree include:

  • clouds
  • mountain ranges
  • lightning bolts
  • coastlines
  • snow flakes
  • various vegetables (cauliflower and broccoli)
  • animal coloration patterns

Creating Fractals

Images of fractals can be created using fractal-generating software. Images produced by such software are normally referred to as being fractals even if they do not have the above characteristics, such as when it is possible to zoom into a region of the fractal that does not exhibit any fractal properties. Also, these may include calculation or display artifacts which are not characteristics of true fractals.

Common Techniques for Generating Fractals

  • Escape-Time
  • Iterated Function Systems
  • Random
  • Stange Attractors