Hidden Simplicity (Maybe-Ferns 5)

Mathematicians like to do things a little differently. An excellent example was the Mathematische Arbeitstagung, a yearly event held in Bonn, where the (mathematical) audience was asked to publicly suggest speakers.


Friedrich Hirzebruch would write the suggested names on the board (he sometimes misheard…), and then create a list of speakers on the fly. Sometimes they ended up with unexpected results. One year, Michael Barnsley was suggested, who had been working on a new fractal image compression method.


His talk was exciting for us graduate students, because we for once could understand something. The idea was to use special types of iterated function systems: Take a few linear maps that are all contractions, and use them to map a subset  of the plane to the union of the images of that set under all the linear maps. This becomes a contraction of the space of closed subsets of the plane to itself with respect to the Hausdorff distance, and hence has a fixed point, which is again a subset of the plane.


It turns out that these subsets are highly complicated fractals, encoded just by a few numbers. For instance, all images on this page (except for the photo of Hirzebruch at the top) were made with just two linear maps, requiring 12 decimal numbers.


Barnsley claimed that he could reverse engineer this: Start with an image, and find a small collection of linear maps that would produce the given image very accurately. If true, this would revolutionize image compression.  We went home and tried it out on our Atari ST computers and the likes. All we could produce were ferns, twigs, and leaves.


Paul Bourke has a nice web site where he explains how one can design some simple fractals, and has also some very impressive images of ferns using four and more linear maps. Below are the two simple maps used to create the polypodiopsida psychedelica above.