Scientific Algorithms Around Us

If you look at trees, honeycombs and many of the works of art, you’ll find that you can’t describe them precisely. However, what you can do is describe how their shape comes into existence which is the result of a process. For example, a tree can be described as a stem that keeps splitting and growing new branches.

In science, this description is known as an algorithm. An algorithm is a set of rules that create a structure or a process that results in the creation of some kind of entity. Some scientists believe that the reason why the shape of a tree feels pleasant and why some art objects are so appealing even though it’s hard to explain them is that people sense the simplicity of algorithms and this simplicity appeals to them. Another appealing feature of such patterns is variety. For example, even a small change to a tree-producing algorithm would create an extremely wide range of trees that are similar to each other yet very different at the same time. If the angle at which branches split is small and the stems stay straight, you’ll end up with a maze. In case of a wide split angle and bending branches, the result will resemble an oak tree.

When you look at the world around you this way, objects that seem to be extremely complex at first, turn out to have an underlying simplicity and structure to them. A tree has no symmetry to it but this doesn’t mean that you can’t use geometry to describe how a tree grows. All you need is a different type of geometry. This geometry is known as fractal geometry. The key to it is the algorithms it uses to create new forms. Fundamentally, it keeps making new structures of the same kind over and over again. Because of this repetition, a part of a fractal object usually resembles the whole.