Weather Report: On Beauty
Post #6: "Fractals, The Patterns of Chaos: Discover a new Aesthetic of Art, Science and Nature" by John Briggs
Thanks for reading Weather Report: On Beauty! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
If you have a copy of my book, Weather Report: A 90-day journal for reflection and well-being, with the aid of the Beaufort Wind Scale, you might have noticed two things; that you are daily invited to write or draw, 'one thing you found beautiful today', and a list of reading resources at the back. These are not unconnected.
This is a year-long project to write weekly, choosing one of the books from that list with a few wildcards too. I want to go deeper into the subject of beauty and, together with you who join me here, to deepen my own understanding of why it is important. Some of the books on the list are very recent; others are long-standing companions that I return to over and over. To me these are the kind of books that, having read them, I can gain solace simply from having them on my shelves.
"Fractals, The Patterns of Chaos: Discover a new Aesthetic of Art, Science and Nature" by John Briggs
I am no mathematician but I love Briggs’ book and the invitation included in the subtitle: discover a new aesthetic of art, science and nature.
To begin at the end of the book, in the chapter titled The Coda, Briggs asserts that...
"Artists understand the ideas of fractals and chaos intuitively... the deepest gift may be the opportunity these ideas offer for radically changing the way we look at nature.
But first, what are fractals? Briggs describes three attributes of fractals: scaling, self-similarity and randomness.
On a shelf behind me here I have a skeletal magnolia leaf that I have had for several years. I picked it from the grass in the garden one day, attracted by its return to a form far removed from its deep glossiness when attached to the mother tree. But the tracery of its webbing is as intricately patterned as the network of branches on the original tree, and as robust. The fractal shapes replicate down to the microscopic scale in the now visible leaf veins and the deceptively delicate-seeming tracery of webbing. Fractal beauty right there.
The next question is what is chaos? And how does it relate to fractals?
According to Briggs,
“The primordial shape of the jelly fish is a sinuous record of the dynamical forces of the flowing water in which the creature evolved.” (Briggs, p. 37)
Quoting physicist Chet Raymo…
“…nature is infected by … a sheer lunatic exuberance for diversity, a manic propensity to try any damn thing that looks good or works.” (Briggs, p. 37)
Every single thing that evolves in nature is being acted upon by a multitude of forces all the way along, whether it is waves in the ocean, an acorn growing into a mature oak, or the colour of lichen on a sea cliff. And it is an iterative, chaotic process, which counter-intuitively results in beauty and harmony.
I know that I am simply at the edge of some basic level of understanding of this wonderful complexity but I think Briggs’ book follows on quite unexpectedly and unplanned, from last weeks’ The Little Prince and the fox's instruction to the boy prince, to 'go and look again at the roses.'
Let’s briefly go back to last week’s featured book, The Little Prince, and the fox’s elaboration to the prince of what it means to ‘tame’ something. The fox explains that to tame, “You must be very patient”.
The fox (in The Little Prince) explains what he means by taming; to pay attention on a regular basis, to be dependable and thus build mutual trust and a reciprocal relationship of caring. In this understanding it is not an attempt to control, to impose order or modes of behaviour.
However instead we have over several centuries, understood ‘taming’ as subduing, controlling; viewing the natural world, the wild, as needing to have order imposed, with the consequent degradation of the multitude of life systems, plant and animal, supported by our home planet, even leading to the extinction of many.
To quote again from the coda at the close of Briggs’ wonderful book,
“Fractals have the power to help us change our values in areas that may ultimately involve our survival on the planet. Aesthetics, which is about our sense of harmony in nature, has become a deadly serious activity." (Briggs, p. 180)
A resource that I highly recommend is Eoghan Daltun’s book, An Irish Atlantic Rainforest - the video below gives a taster of the work he has been doing on the Beara Peninsula in West Cork.
Let’s pay attention, and welcome complexity and beauty.
The quote from page 37 brings a great grin from ear to ear!