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Fractals: Hunting the Hidden Dimension

WGBH // Unrated // March 24, 2009
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Jeffrey Kauffman | posted March 8, 2009 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:
Do any of you parents who might be reading this have a similar division of homework helper labor as do I and my wife? I handle all of the arts and literature side of things, and my dear wife handles all of the math. She made it through calculus and trigonometry, while I was barely able to prove that a triangle had three sides. Therefore, you must go to another review if you want a high-falutin' analysis of the math behind Fractals: Hunting the Hidden Dimension. While I think I understand at least the basic concepts discussed in this at times visually mind blowing Nova episode, usually when I think I understand something mathematical, that almost always ends up meaning I haven't the foggiest clue.

I remember very well sometime in the 1970s, perhaps even at around the same time as Benoit Mandelbrot was developing his "Mandelbrot Set" and theory of fractals (jagged edged geometrical forms which are endlessly self-repeating and seem to explain a lot of natural structures like leaves and coastlines), looking out at big tree in my yard and suddenly realizing how much it looked like a bisection of a brain I had seen in an anatomy text. That same similarity of structure is what ultimately led Mandelbrot to his revolutionary geometry, one that shied away from smooth curves and straight lines and instead sought to describe weird, almost hallucinogenic, forms that 19th century mathematicians had actually termed "monsters."

One of the first CD-ROMs I ever bought, back in the halcyon days of nascent "multimedia computers" (as they were quaintly called back then) was a very cool thing called "Fractal Ecstasy." That was my first personal experience with these incredible forms, beautiful swirling shapes that repeated their basic geometry to infinity the more you delved into them. It seems perhaps not so odd therefore that, as described in this episode, Mandelbrot's geometry was widely dismissed after his first book as simply a visual parlor trick or the unexpected result of a computer's ability to endlessly "iterate" a formula, something that is required to produce fractals.

What this compelling piece shows, however, is not only how revolutionary Mandelbrot's approach was, but how prescient it also was in being able to open up everything from measuring techniques to CGI in such films as Star Trek II and various Star Wars episodes. It's fractal geometry that accounts for special effects like animated lava bursting so seemingly lifelike over Obi-Wan and Annakin in Episode III, for example. Another segment shows a textile workshop that utilizes fractals to create very hip looking shirts. Away from purely "artistic" pursuits, scientists are utilizing fractal geometry to catalogue whole forests, finding amazing geometrical similarities not only in branching patterns but in the dispersal and sizes of the trees themselves throughout a large area.

While this is a highly information and fascinating Nova (as most of the episodes from this great series are), it certainly would have been nice to have seen more "fractals in motion," which is one of the neatest way to view these weird little things, and one which seems especially suited to Blu-ray. In fact about the only thing close to that experience is the short title menu sequence on this BD, which to my eyes was not enough.

Fractals: Hunting the Hidden Dimension provides a solid background into the founding and development of this nonconformist geometry. With great interviews with Mandelbrot himself, as well as a host of other scientists and artists, you, too, may not understand the math, but you'll certainly come away from this piece full of wonder at the exciting, yet bizarre, world of fractals.

The Blu-ray

Video:
Despite an MPEG-2 encode, this 1.78:1 BD looks nicely sharp and detailed, though, again, I sure wish it would have had more time spent with animated fractals, which would have really exploited the potential of the BD format. Colors and contrast are sharp, and even the incredible fine lines of the fractals as the camera continues to zoom into ever smaller iterations is impressively sharp. "Real world" segments are just fine, with solid color and detail throughout. Some of the forest footage looks a little blanched, but that may be because of the relatively low-res cameras that were probably used to film that part of the documentary.

Sound:
The DD 5.1 mix is pretty much a case of overkill since this episode is almost exclusively narration and talking heads. Everything is perfectly clear and crisp, with no anomalies or dropouts. There is very occasional use of surround channels in some of the effects sequences. There's an additional stereo soundtrack with narrated described video for the visually impaired, and English subtitles are available.

Extras:
None are offered, which is a real shame on this BD. Certainly some additional material could have been included that could have let viewers make their own fractals or explore a "fractal universe" more thoroughly.

Final Thoughts:
I may not understand the math involved, but I know that fractals are very cool. This well paced and diverse look at how fractals impact our daily lives is always interesting. If this BD is a little lackluster in terms of mind blowing visuals (which fractals virtually require) and especially the dearth of extras, the documentary itself is a fascinating piece that will easily hold most viewers' interest. Recommended.

____________________________________________
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet

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