More fractal fun

In the previous article, I explained how the famous Koch snowflake can be built in a different way, using “self-replicating” triangles. This was a revelation for me, because I had always thought of the Koch snowflake as fundamentally different from other kinds of fractals like the Sierpinski triangle, and now I think of them as being basically the same.

In the Sierpinski triangle, each triangle yields three new, scaled-down triangles, attached at the midpoints of sides of the original, like this:

steps-sierpinski

These triangles are usually thought of as “holes” cut out of a big triangle, but all I care about here is the pattern of the triangles.  As I explained last time, the Koch snowflake can be built in a similar way, where each triangle produces six new ones, like this:

steps-koch

You might say this bends the usual rules for making fractals since some of the triangles overlap with their ancestors.  But, it makes me happy because it lets me think of the Sierpinski triangle and the Koch snowflake as essentially the same kind of thing, just with different self-replication rules.

What other fractals can we build in this way?  The Sierpinski carpet is very similar to the Sierpinski triangle, where we now start with squares and a rule for how a square produces 8 smaller ones:

carpet

This made me wonder if I could generalize my construction of the Koch snowflake using triangles to generate some other fractal using squares.  In other words, is there some Koch snowflake-like fractal that is analogous to the ordinary Koch snowflake in the same way that the Sierpinski carpet is analogous to the Sierpinki traingle?

There is!  Taken to the 5th generation, it looks like this:

octagon-snowflake

The outline of this fractal is an analog of the Koch snowflake, but with 8-fold symmetry, rather than 6-fold.  Compare the original Koch snowflake with this one:

Just as I explained last time for the Koch snowflake (left), the blue picture above actually provides a proof that the plane can be tiled with copies of tiles like the one on the right, with various sizes—though in this case, you can’t do it with just two sizes of tiles; it takes infinitely many different sizes!  In fact, this tiling of the plane is also given in Aidan Burns’ paper I referenced in the previous post.

But, my construction is built entirely out of self-replicating squares.  What’s the rule for how squares replicate?

Before I tell you, I’ll give two hints:

First, each square produces 8 new squares, just like in the Sierpinski carpet.  (So, we could actually make a cool animation of this fractal morphing into the Sierpinski carpet!)

Second, you can more easily see some of the bigger squares in the picture if you make the colors of the layers more distinct.  While I like the subtle effect of making each successive generation a slightly darker shade of blue, playing with the color scheme on this picture is fun.  And I learned something interesting when my 7-year old (who is more fond of bold color statements) designed this scheme:

octahedral-c

The colors here are not all chosen independently; the only choice is the color of each generation of squares.  And this lets us see bits of earlier-generation squares peeking through in places I hadn’t noticed with my more conservative color choices.

For example, surrounding the big light blue flower in the middle, there are 8 small light blue flowers, and 16 even smaller ones (which just look like octagons here, since I’ve only gone to the 5th generation); these are really all part of the same light-blue square that’s hiding behind everything else.

The same thing happens with the pink squares, and so on.  If you stare at this picture, you can start seeing the outlines of the squares.

So what’s the rule?  Here it is:

The 8 small squares are all the same size, and the side of the big square is two sides plus a diagonal of the small squares, so the squares are scaled down by a factor of \frac{1}{2+\sqrt{2}}.

Up next: Triangles and squares were fun.  What fun can we have with pentagons?

(All images in this post copyright 2017, Derek Wise)

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