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"A Season in Hell"
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Phil Thompson
"Order in the chaos"
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Monday, 14 December, 1998, 11:43 GMT
Listening to geometry
Nature's music?
Nature's music?
A British composer has produced what has been called the 'theme tune of the Universe' - a piece of music composed by mother nature herself. Our science editor Dr David Whitehouse reports:

There is something instantly recognisable in Phil Thompson's music, which is surprising as it has come straight from mathematics.

A fractal image
A fractal image
He has taken images of fractals and translated them into music.

Fractals are geometric shapes that look the same under any level of magnification. A small section of a fractal image is a copy of the whole image.

"When I first heard it, I was slightly scared," said Mr Thompson. "What was coming out of the loudspeakers was not noise, it was recognisable music."

Mathematical experts are impressed. Ian Stewart, Professor of Mathematics at Warwick University, said: "What amazes me with this kind of music is that it sounds much better than you would expect.

"Music has a certain structure, which our minds seem to like. You need theme and variation. By coincidence, or perhaps not, the mathematics of fractals is just like that."

With his work on fractals in the 1970s, mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot created a new branch of science and a new scientific icon for our age.

The strangely psychedelic images of fractals, one version of which bears his name, have become a symbol of the profound mystery of numbers and the strangeness of order emerging from chaos.

The Mandelbrot set
The Mandelbrot set
Fractals are everywhere. Most of the objects we encounter in our daily lives are fractal.

A mountain and its rocks are fractal, each rock when magnified looks like a tiny mountain. Such structures within structure are the hallmark of fractals.

Clouds are not spheres but fractals, coastlines are not smooth but fractal.

They are to be found in the timing of our heartbeats and the falling of a snowflake. Even the distribution of galaxies throughout space is fractal.

The Mandelbrot set does not just produce beautiful pictures, it has also produced a new branch of music. A number of composers have shown interest in the musical application of fractals.

Phil Thompson has turned the Mandelbrot set into a composition he has called 'A Season in Hell'.

There has always been some mathematics in music. Bach in his Toccata and Fugue in E Minor moves a trio of notes up and down on the staff in such a symmetrical way that you could take one trio of notes and lay it perfectly over another.

But fractal music is different, some say it touches something deeper within us than note symmetries on the page.

Throughout our evolution we have been surrounded by fractals in the form of the noise of a waterfall, the rustle of undergrowth and the sounds of our own bodies.

Because of this, some scientists say we react to them at a deep level. Perhaps that explains the sense of recognition we feel when we listen to fractal music?

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