by Peter Coates


Issue 22

Jul/Aug 86

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Fractals seems to be the subject that the whole computer world is talking about at the moment and this article by Peter Coates provides you with the background to the fascinating world of fractals and gives hints on how you may write your own fractal generating program on the Atari.

Readers of Page 6 may have come across graphical representations of fractals in a variety of forms - the artificial landscapes generated in some games programs, trees used as examples of recursion, and the colourful and complex patterns employed to demonstrate the graphics capabilities of modern micros. In this article I will be concerned with the last group, as these have the greatest variety of complex and attractive patterns. They are usually associated with the name of Benoit Mandelbrot, who did much to publicise them. For some outstanding examples of fractals, the reader is advised to beg, borrow or steal (not really!) a copy of his book 'Frontiers of Chaos'. I will also show you how to program your computer to generate these patterns.

It is not generally realised that fractals arose from a branch of abstract mathematics which studies the chaotic behaviour of some functions. By this I mean that the value of one of these functions will change dramatically for quite small shifts in the value of one of the variables. This behaviour is quite different from that of the classical functions of mathematics, whose values in general change smoothly and continuously. A geometrical example of a fractal often quoted is the coastline of an island. If asked to determine its length, we might take a map of the island and measure the length of the perimeter. If we found a map on a larger scale and repeated the exercise, we would obtain a greater value, because small inlets and corrugations not present on the first map have to be taken into account. As the scale is magnified, the length continues to increase, and eventually we have to add in the contributions from rocks, pebbles and even grains of sand. Moreover, as we do this, we would notice an interesting fact; whatever the level of magnification, the sections of coastline being measured have similar shapes, with unresolved detail waiting to be exposed.

The Mandelbrot Set

A coastline is a simple example of a fractal, but it illustrates the point that forms in nature are often much more complex than the simple shapes of classical geometry. However, even the complex fractals of Mandelbrot may be generated with a relatively simple computer program, and I will now describe how to do this. It should be emphasized that the technique given is only one example, and that there is plenty of scope for experimentation with other functions and methods.

We consider the effect of a simple process applied repeatedly to a complex number which initially represents the position of a pixel (i.e. a picture element) on the screen. A complex number z is given by

z = x + i*y

where x and y are the horizontal and vertical coordinates of the point, and i is the square root of -1. If you are not addicted to complex numbers, don't worry, as the calculations will all be given in terms of the real numbers x and y. The process we shall use here is given mathematically by

z(k+1) = z(k) + c 

where c is a complex constant

c = p + i*q

In words, this equation says that we form the next (k + 1)th term in the sequence from the preceding one by squaring it and adding the constant c. What is likely to happen? Clearly, if both z and c are small, successive terms will quickly become very small. Equally, if z and c are large, then the terms will increase very rapidly. In the regions between, the terms may wander around for some time before deciding whether to become small or go off to infinity. The magnitude m of a complex number, by the way, represents its distance from the origin and is given by

m = x + y

To generate a fractal pattern, therefore, we count the number of times that the process must be applied to the initial value before m for the term z(k+1) exceeds a specified value L. As it may be shown that, once m has exceeded 2, the magnitude increases rapidly, convenient values for L lie between 10 and 100. Also, as some points stay small in magnitude and will never exceed the limit, and we don't want to spend for ever looking at them, we terminate the process after a given number of repetitions, k. The number of repetitions counted, k, can therefore take values for each point from 1 to the upper limit k. To colour the pattern, we relate k to one of the available colours on our output device with what we may call a colouring rule. For example, we might colour values of 1 to 10 as blue, 11 to 20 as orange, and so on. The rule is quite arbitrary, and may be varied to improve the appearance of the fractal obtained. Although the more attractive patterns are obtained with high resolution graphics with many colours, such as may be achieved with the new Atari ST machines, I hope the examples provided with this article, produced on my old 800, show that interesting patterns may be generated in black and white. I output the patterns directly to my Kanga NLG printer to achieve higher resolution than that available on the screen.


Sea Creature

At this point, I shall complicate the issue a little (or even further, I hear you say!) by pointing out that two types of fractals may be generated with the procedure described. The Mandelbrot set is obtained by setting the first term of the sequence equal to zero, and relating the constant c to the point being coloured by


The Julia set, on the other hand, is obtained by setting the initial value


and assigning c a value which is fixed for the whole pattern. The differences between the two in practice are that in the Mandelbrot set we may change not only the position but the magnification, and this gives a very great variety of complex patterns, while the Julia patterns, on the other hand, are plotted over the whole of the range of interest, i.e. x, y = -1.5 to +1.5, and only the value c is changed.

However, the Julia set possesses a degree of symmetry which I find attractive, and requires lower numerical resolution. All the examples shown come from the Julia set and were plotted using a FORTH program with 16-bit fixed point arithmetic, which is considerably faster than Atari BASIC.

The first printout shows the whole of the Mandelbrot set, with a horizontal range for -1.7 to 0.5, and -1.1 to +1.1 vertically. The colouring rule was very simple; values of k below 12, on the outside of the figure, and equal to the maximum, 200, around the centre, were left blank, while all points with k between 12 and 199 were printed black. The most interesting behaviour of both the Mandelbrot and Julia sets is found in and around the black area.

So let's look at the programs required to generate fractals. As the systems available to Atari users will vary, I haven't tried to present a complete program, but with the comments provided it shouldn't be difficult to modify these notes to produce a program for your computer.

1) Initial values : ENTER N, M, X0, Y0, D
The plotting area is assumed to contain N pixels horizontally and M vertically. X0 and Y0 are the coordinates of the bottom left-hand corner, and D is the interval between pixels in mathematical units. I prefer to keep the spacing constant in both directions, but you can change to different values DX and DY if you wish. It follows that the
upper values of x and y are



and these can alternatively be entered and D calculated from them.

2) Other values : ENTER P,Q
For the Julia set only, we enter the values for the complex constant c. For all patterns, we set the value K for the maximum number of iterations (50 - 1000), and for the maximum amplitude L (10 - 100).

3) For each pixel e.g.

FOR I=0 TO M-1 

FOR J=0 TO N-1

Set the loop counter, which gives the value of k, to zero 



Now set the initial values for z(0) and c.

For the Mandelbrot set:



For the Julia set:


(P and Q already set)

Start the iteration and calculate the next values

START : XL = XK - YK + P

YL = 2*XK*YK + Q

Increment the counter and reset the X, Y values for the next stage


XK = XL : YK = YL

Loop back if the magnitude of the new value is less than L, and the maximum number of iterations has not been reached


4) Colour pixel (I,J) according to the value of the COUNTER and the colouring rule, usually written as a set of IF ... THEN statements. Then move on to the next pixel



Be warned that fractals take an enormous amount of computing time; 'Sea Creatures' took almost six days to produce, even with the faster FORTH programming. So it is a good idea to run the program first with low resolution (N and M), to see whether it looks interesting, and to improve the resolution when you have the parameters and the colouring right. It is possible to store the values of k for smaller patterns, and to study the effects of different colouring rules, but for large patterns the storage required, one byte per pixel, becomes excessive. 

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