Cliff Pickover

Fractals and the pursuit of beauty

Interview previously at IBM Research web site...

For IBM Researcher Cliff Pickover, the passion that drives his work is the search for that delicate balance between chaos and order. At the center of his passion lie fractals, computer-generated patterns that can represent mathematical concepts. Fractals are often objects of beauty, not to mention useful tools for areas as diverse as medicine, computer science and education.

When he's not busy developing code for IBM's IntelliStation (IBM's new high-end personal computer), or writing and explaining mathematical concepts to the public, Pickover is exploring ways in which fractals and computerized visualization can be stretched for aesthetic as well as practical reasons.

Entering the fractal dimension
"One of the most important things that fractals contribute is the concept of fractal dimension," Pickover explains. "By using a single number, scientists can characterize the behavior of systems, and the irregularity of shapes. For example, fractals can be used to characterize coastlines or the structure of blood vessels and cells. They give us insights into chaos theory, which looks at the effect of irregularity on very large systems, such as weather. Computers graphics can be used to produce visual representations with a myriad of perspectives, many of which are beautiful to the eye."

The work of Pickover and his colleagues at IBM is branching into many areas to explore new ways for using computerized visualization to represent data, illuminate patterns and simulate natural forms. Pickover has worked on topics ranging from the graphical representation of genetic sequences and sounds to the simulation and rendering of huge lifelike caverns (which he calls "virtual caverns" because they can be explored using computer tools).

Click here for Cliff's Virtual Cavern!

Fractal Questions and Answers

"Fractals are also useful in computer science. For example, we can use what we've learned from studying fractals to compress images in computers so they take up less room," he says. "In general, I see graphics of fractals as part of the field of scientific visualization -- the melding of art and science in which we're making the unseen visible."

Learning from the masters
"I first heard about fractals during a lecture at IBM by Benoit Mandelbrot, who is considered the 'father of fractals,' " says Pickover. Pickover joined IBM at the T.J. Watson Research Center in 1982 after receiving his Ph.D. from Yale in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. "People ask me how I got involved with fractals. I thought Mandelbrot's work was so fascinating that I tried to reproduce some of the fractal forms he created. Gradually, computer graphics became my main love."

Pickover's love of fractals and the general field of computerized visualization has made him one of the more prolific scientists at IBM. He has authored or edited more than 16 books on fractals, mathematics and other topics, including Fractal Horizon, which covers the many uses for fractals; Keys to Infinity, which explores the concepts of very large numbers and infinite regression; and the recently published Loom of God, which looks at mathematics and mysticism from a historical perspective. He has contributed articles to The Washington Post, BYTE, and Wired, and has been featured on The Discovery Channel and CNN. Referring to his creative thinking and visualization work, Wired magazine recently wrote, "Bucky Fuller thought big, Arthur C. Clarke thinks big, but Cliff Pickover outdoes them both." See Pickover's books on fractals here.

Inspiring young minds
While the practical and artistic applications of fractals and Pickover's research are many and varied, he points out that there is one reason -- perhaps above all others -- why this field is important. The reason harkens back to his initiation into the world of fractals.

"When we show students, including those in elementary and high schools, the beautiful forms that come from fractals, it sparks an enormous amount of interest. Students want to know how these images are created," he says. "Particularly when it comes to young minds, fractals may be doing more to spur interest in mathematics than any other event in this century."

For some of Pickover's recent artworks, click here.

Return to Cliff Pickover's home page which includes the Wishing Project cataloging wishes from various cultures, computer art, educational puzzles, fractals, virtual caverns, JAVA/VRML, alien creatures, black hole artwork, and animations.