Seeing infinity

Genetic Fractals

You may recall a post about me being lost in the woods of mathematics of genetic fractals and after finding my way out, I reported excitedly about some abstract findings.

While I have been away from this blog, I have ventured again into the depth of genetic fractals and am both excited and frightened by what I have seen. Let’s start with the excitement.

A few months ago I decided that it was time to take genetic fractals out of the realm of imagination and virtuality and make them real. I wanted to touch them. So I developed some software to make them 3D printable. Then I sent a sample to Shapeways, one of the bigger 3D printers. You can imagine the thrill when a few weeks later they sent me the sample back in flexible white plastic.

genetic fractal printed

There is something strange and wondrous in holding in one’s hands an object that was imagined only. A mathematical thing that only lived in the virtual world of my laptop and my mind.

What next? If these genetic fractals are real, then perhaps they may serve a purpose after all?

I took the sample and a few other (unprinted) designs and showed them to different people. An architect was intrigued. An art lover was excited. A gallery owner spotted potential. An engineer wanted to get involved.

A little water has flowed under the bridge and I am preparing a portfolio to hit the road and see designers, artists, architects and engineers to develop genetic fractals further.

The thing is, I have finally figured out that these genetic fractals are the equivalent of living things, but for inanimate objects; these are objects with their own DNA. This DNA can be manipulated and evolved and with that, the objects evolve. I also realized that although most of the genetic fractals I have focused on are a little “other worldly”, I can just as easily create ordinary objects such as chairs, toothbrushes or bicycles with them. But these are very special “ordinary” objects, because they have DNA.

“This is not a pipe” by Magritte

A bicycle created from genetic fractals is not just a bicycle: it is a species of bicycle. An object that can evolve and mutate. A designer who uses these genetic fractals will design species of objects and focus on their evolution rather than a specific instance. A chair is not a chair; it is an instance of a thought that was first thought by a caveman and that has evolved since. Genetic fractals make this explicit.

With that notion of object DNA comes genetic manipulation. If I were to take the DNA from the back of your chair and insert it into the DNA of my chair, it would ‘grow’ your chair’s back on mine. Evolving objects through genetic manipulation rather than engineering.

Exciting stuff. 2014 promises to be intriguing at least.

But it is also scary.

When you think of objects as species and you imagine how they can evolve and mutate, there is a new dimension that we haven’t seen before. This is not conceptual but very real. That is fine, I can get my head around this.

What is a little more unsettling is when I look at what else genetic fractals can produce. Ordinary fractals are structures that are infinitely detailed and that show repeating patterns regardless how closely you look. Genetic fractals have an additional dimension. In addition to infinite detailed and repeated patterns, they also allow for intricate relationships within these structures.

genetic fractals

Lost? Of course you are; these are very dark forests. Let’s look at a well known example.

The plant on your desk has leaves, branches, a stem and a root. The leaves have nerves and green stuff between them. A little deeper, you will find cells that have lots of biological components inside. These are made of huge molecules, including DNA. These in turn are made of atoms that have protons, neutrons and electrons. Deeper still we find a zoo of particles such as quarks, bosons and neutrinos. These can also be seen as waves of energy that live on a more fundamental substrate of fields.

Some or all of that you knew and although it’s a little complicated, there is some familiarity. There is nothing unsettling about the thought that a plant has cells, DNA and atoms.

Given that genetic fractals are structures within structures, they can happily be used to represent such a plant.

But that would be boring and pointless.

Genetic Fractals

When I started to create new architectures where objects are made of lesser known shapes such as spiky prong bits, and these spiky prong bits are composed of wobbly wong blobs then very quickly we are navigating a universe that is perfectly unknown. When these wobbly wong blobs are in fact made of rotating throbs and vibrating jots, then the whole thing begins to look a little scary.

Then, you send that monster to a 3D printer and it escapes the confines of computer memory and flat screens and if you are not careful, it will jump out of the window and hijack a fast motorbike.

We may as well poke fun to release the tension. The fact is that genetic fractals can get a little scary.

genetic fractals

It made me wonder what Einstein thought when he figured out special and general relativity. He was arm wrestling with God. Certainly, when he witnessed the destructive power of the atom bomb, he wished he had pursued a watch-making career in Switzerland.

Georg Cantor, a mathematical genius who explored the notion of infinity, went mad in doing so. What he saw was too scary. I expect that all scientists who explore new ground have such moments of madness.

I’m not smart enough to reach such depth of human thought, but I can just see over the edge of the abyss of genetic fractals. What else is there in that infinite blackness? The detail is infinite and across the surface of these fractals I see veins running. They have springy joints and heave and breathe. They have embedded mechanisms that serve a purpose. Whose purpose? Worse still, I see a genetic selection algorithm that modifies the DNA of these fractals without my intervention. What will it create?

What will it create when it is in charge?

I’m curious and apprehensive to find out.


6 thoughts on “Seeing infinity

  1. This is trippy stuff. Holy cow.

    But I now love wobbly wong blobs! They rock. Or wobble.

    I always feel quite chilled when I reflect on Einstein, the atom bomb and the Manhattan Project and how those brilliant minds must have been tormented by their genius and the dark corollary of being at the very limits of the Present.

    Happy new year. Don’t forget to pack a torch…

    1. Thanks Dara. I agree – certainly Einstein had a peaceful and loving mind. I read one of his books in which presented his vision for humanity. It was possibly published after the bombs were dropped and either way, the weight of responsibility must have been awesome. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the scientific energy that he expended was in part to redeem himself. Happy New Year!

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