This essay, “NASA’s Abstract Expressionism,” was originally published on the online Curator Magazine on April 30, 2014.
What shape is a cloud? A kindergarten teacher would tell her class that, of course, a cloud is a circle. But this is a matter of perspective. How do you draw the clouds that form a hurricane, or how do you paint a cloud on a cloudless day?
As the mathematician Benoit B. Madelbrot mused in the introduction to The Fractal Geometry of Nature:
“Why is geometry often described as ‘cold’ and ‘dry’? One reason lies in its inability to describe the shape of a cloud, a mountain, a coastline, or a tree. Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line… [In fact,] nature exhibits not simply a higher degree but an altogether different level of complexity. The number of…natural patterns is for all practical purposes infinite.”
Mandelbrot is the father of the mathematical field of Fractals and his work reveals patterns in the most chaotic of elements of the natural world. From the smallest shells to the grandest weather systems, we find order. Through aerial satellite shots of our great green planet, we catch a glimpse of the level of the natural world’s complexity. Clouds lose all familiarity; so do valleys, trees, rivers, and algae: our world looks foreign and abstract.