The Fractal Life

I was whisking melted dark chocolate into banana-cream batter on a quiet, serene, mild afternoon, when suddenly, our kitchen burst into blazing golden heat. Invisible fire licked my arms. My eyes — which had been staring absently into the horizon as my hands went through the motion — squeezed shut on autopilot, but the blindness that engulfed me was a searing red-gold. Behind the thin veil of my eyelids, tears brimmed. I raised a blistered palm to rub them away, and smelt vanilla on myself.

And then, just as suddenly, there was blissful darkness. I peeped cautiously through my fingers. My mother had tucked a long (but narrow) towel on the window-grill. The fiery golden beams still lit up the kitchen, but I had a blessed square of filtered, soft white light to work in.

Later that evening, I noticed my physicist-in-training friend Abhra had also written about the stunning sudden sun-burst.

It’s awfully bright today. The sun is too bright to look at, and when it falls on your eyes it hurts, but in an amazing happy way. Our housemaid observed from the balcony, looking at the clouds, that they look like cauliflower. Which is quite true of those billowy cumulus clouds. But this similarity deserves more than a passing remark.

Cloud surfaces are fractal shapes… cauliflower are also fractals. So is broccoli, or a bunch of other natural produce.

This is not an isolated factoid. There’s boundless more of these if you start looking. The world is like this. As Feynman said, “Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so that each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry.” These amazing little wonders are all around us. They surround us and enclose us. This is a magical world. Ask, read, know, and feel awesome.

That, in short, is the best reason for learning and knowledge-picking I’ve ever come across. This world is magical. We are miracles of creation. And science leads us gently by the hand into deciphering and understanding and feeling awed by this wealth of astonishing beauty and craftship. If we let it.

Summarising from a section of the Upanishads — or so he said — my devout grandfather once told us, “Knowledge is the only path to god. The more you know of the world, the more you’ll marvel at it. Slowly, you’ll begin to share your soul with it, feel a part of it, have such a strong sense of belonging that nothing will shake it. And when you do, you will discover a spring of such peace and happiness within, that it will never run dry”.

[My grandfather’s two favourite writers were Tagore and Mujtaba Ali. I think you can see why]



  1. Like a lot actually. Reading the “That in short…” para my mind whispered Upanishad. You said it in the next. By then reveling in your words I said Upanishad, warm words…Tagore. And then you did. Love to you 🙂

  2. Beautifully written.

    Living near MIT is wasn’t hard to attend a lecture by Mr. Fractal. After we met I wrote a short piece suggesting the idiosyncratic neural architecture behind each mind in fact orders everything we perceive into multiple impressions of … ourselves. The “Mandelbrot Set” takes any value and spins off infinite versions of itself in infinite variations – hooked up to visual software, it revolutionized graphics as suddenly the textures of nature were made visible, creating “natural” disorder from orderly numbers, infinite duplicates of the same value. Witnesses to a neural simulation, we perceive everything through an idiosyncratic mind that must place its order on everything we experience, since our reality is something we make up a tenth of a second after it happened – wherever. Of course we cannot perceive it, we are making it at the same time.

    All this contributes to an illusion of a generalized world populated by others, when to a large extent it is both self-created – and populated – like fractals – with versions of ourselves.

    So is it all maya, a beautiful illusion powerful in it’s stunning presentation? Of course it is. But we have a lot more ability to affect the universe than we think as we are creators as well as the created and it works better that way. Take a hint from Tagore .. if we can see the love of God in every sunset and polar star – rejoice. He was part of my mother’s funeral service and a good example of letting a beautiful mind re-order the world for himself – and others. And it doesn’t have to be Rabindranath himself .. we all do it occasionally.

    Those beautiful scenes, that gash of bright light fading to quiet darkness, this is what I mean.

  3. The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”
    ― Carl Sagan, Cosmos


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