Hey, just because I’m an English major now doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy a bit of math on the side. Therefore, I present to you Visual Numbers: The Next Generation (Part I, insert obligatory Star Wars joke).

I’ve always been a big fan of fractals. I was imagining fractal-esque recursive structures back when solving 2x + 5 = 0 seemed intimidating. Recently, in my wanderings through the hallowed halls of physics, I stumbled across the idea of generating fractals by coloring each pixel of an image according to the final state of a differential equation, with the x and y coordinates of that pixel as input parameters. Of course, being an incompetent programmer, I haven’t been able to write a stable integrator for a differential equation, but I’m just smart enough to manage simple stuff like the discrete logistic map, where every new x is computed according to the formula x = λx(1-x), where λ is a constant. The other day, I had a brainstorm and decided to create a two-dimensional version of the same sort of thing, only with x as a vector and replacing x at each step with F(x), where F is a vector function. Basically, all that means is that I now have *two* integer variables to play with, which allows for more interesting behavior and allows me to create pretty pictures like this:

In this image, each pixel is colored according to the following rule: all pixels start out white. Then, each pixel is turned into a vector v(x,y), where x and y are the pixel’s coordinates. The function v(x,y) = v(-x.y,x.x + floor(0.5 * x.y)) is then applied repeatedly for a fixed number of steps (in this case, 750). If at any point during iteration the vector reaches a previously-visited point, then that point forms a closed, repetitive orbit in 2-space and the pixel is colored black. If this doesn’t happen, the pixel is left white.

The shapes here are pretty nice, even if I do say so myself. From some prior experiments with similar mappings, I think that the smaller black ellipses with banding and satellite blobs represent orbits shaped like three elliptical orbits connected into a weird triangle, and that the large oval with the large banding represents the “spirograph-like” orbits.

The really neat thing about mappings like this is that they’re a (relatively) computationally-inexpensive alternative to the differential-equation mappings I discussed earlier. I’m no great mathematician (obviously), but I get the feeling that these two-dimensional mappings are discretized analogues of the mapping that generates the ever-beautiful Mandelbrot Set.

Interestingly (and here I’m playing mathematician again), you can write this type of mapping this way:

F(v) = v(ax + by,cx + dy). In the case of the above map, a = 0, b = -1 , c = 1, d = 0.5. With a = 0.5, b = -1, c = 1, and d = 0.1, you get a beautiful spiral pattern:

It’s a little hard to see because the orbits are so dense, but this pattern is actually fractal, too (or seems to be): there are smaller spirals to the top-center and left-center of the big one, and what looks like unformed proto-spirals in between those.

And this lovely pattern is created by a = 0, b = -1, c = 1, d = 0.1. Note the eleven-pointed stars in the upper right and left and the lower right. Watch this space for more mathematical prettiness.