The term was coined by Benoit Mandelbrot in 1975, based on the fact that no matter how many times you “fracture” a fractal shape, you can always break it down to smaller, exact copies of itself. The pattern of the original shape repeats itself endlessly on an ever-smaller scale (somewhat like a family tree).
Because fractal patterns are so complex, it wasn’t until the 20th century that modern math and science could figure them out. But surprisingly, they seem to have been a familiar motif all over the ancient world – because fractals are one of the most fundamental patterns of nature.
It’s hard to look around and not see a fractal, if you know what to look for. Some examples of natural fractals are familiar to us; others are so bizarre, they will blow your mind!
See some amazing photos of fractals in nature >
Fluids such as water tend to move in fractal patterns. The branching-out of the flow into smaller and smaller streams creates this kind of fractal motion.
Cloud formations known as Von Karman vortices, as seen from space:
WEB ECOIST: 17 CAPTIVATING FRACTALS FOUND IN NATURE
(If you don’t mind the ads this page has some particularly good examples)