“I wanted to do something totally absurd because it was so romantic and so childish despite no longer being a child.”
These are the mischievous words of Benoit Mandelbrot, the father of Fractal Geometry.
Fractals are objects in which the same pattern occurs again and again at different scales and sizes. Think Russian Nesting Dolls.
In a perfect mathematical fractal, such as the famous Mandelbrot set — a.k.a, ‘The Thumbprint of God’ — this self-similarity goes infinitely deep: each pattern made up of smaller copies of itself and those smaller copies made up of smaller copies again, forever.
The sixfold symmetry of a snowflake, for example, is repeated several times. The central hexagon sprouts six more hexagons and the outer corners of those produce still more hexagonal outgrowths. In most trees, a central trunk forks into two or more branches which themselves fork again and again into thinner and thinner branches.
Mandelbrot’s discovery is now used to study and understand important scientific concepts such as the way bacteria grow and the patterns in freezing water and brain waves. Wireless cell phone antennas use a fractal pattern to pick up a wider range of signals with better quality than a simple antenna. Anything with a rhythm or pattern has a chance of being very fractal-like.
But this is not about snowflakes and trees. It’s about the source of creativity, which, for Mandelbrot, was the romantic mischief of his inner child.
Children paint outside the lines.
Ask a child why, and she’ll reply, “I don’t know, just because.” Now, let me ask you: When was the last time you gave your artistry —even just yourself — permission to be so blissfully unbounded?
“I want to sing like the birds sing,” said Rūmī, “not worrying about who hears or what they think.”
How perfectly absurd! How romantic! Genius!
Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will. — Charles Baudelaire
Children are seekers, questioners… their insatiable curiosity is a magic carpet woven with questions like, “I wonder… What if… If only…” whisking them away to imagination and discovery.
Some people never lose it.
I wonder why an apple falls down from a tree instead of up was the question that led Isaac Newton to develop his famous law of gravitation.
What if man could visit the moon? wondered French novelist Jules Verne when writing ‘From the Earth to the Moon’ a century before the first lunar landing.
If only men could fly must’ve been on Leonardo da Vinci’s mind when he designed the world’s first helicopter and hang-glider more than 500 years ago.
“I want to know God’s thoughts,” dared Einstein’s irrational genius.
For most others, puberty marks the moment when they succumb to the pressures of the outside world and fetter their inner child with the constraining voice of ‘reason’ and blight it with the corrosive acid of cynicism.
“Who’s to say that certain types of irrational thinking aren’t exactly what the world needs?” asked 12 year-old Adora Svitak in her 2010 Ted Talk. “Maybe you’ve had grand plans before,” she said, “but stopped yourself, thinking, ‘that’s impossible,’ or ‘that costs too much,’ or ‘that won’t benefit me.’ Kids aren’t hampered as much when it comes to thinking about reasons why not to do things. In many ways, our audacity to imagine helps push the boundaries of possibility.”
The boy who never built a castle in the air will never build one on earth. — Thomas Wentworth Higginson
Where children have the grand advantage over grownups is in their freedom from the weight of authority, tradition, and censure. They, like the rascal Rūmī, couldn’t care less about what people think.
“The passionate inner life of children,” said English author John Cowper Powys, “the imaginative existence which to them is the whole purpose and vital interest of their days, is not a game. Far from envying the grownup reality, or admiring it, or thinking how to imitate it, children have a permanent underlying contempt for it as lacking one important thing: magic. They are “muggles!” as said the old, purple-clad wizard in ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.’
I wrote my first story when I was eight. Wrote it in pencil thirty feet off the ground while resting on a thick, mosspongy branch of an old avocado tree in the country of my youth.
I got the idea from listening to an LP record which told the tale of one Professor Challenger who trekked across a remote jungle searching for living proof of dinosaurs. In my story, I had a group of boys accidentally fall into a giant, clear water sinkhole, deep in a Guatemala rainforest, and swim all the way to the center of Earth. Don’t ask me why their parents allowed them out on their own in a remote rainforest, or how they managed to hold their breath for as long as it took them to reach Earth’s center, or how they eventually landed on firm ground covered in jungle and roaming with dinosaurs. They just did.
Had I been constrained by reason or propriety, I would’ve wasted time researching all about cenotes, proper curfews for young boys, lung capacity, the temperature at the center of Earth and whether human flesh would boil at 10832 degrees. I’d still be writing it, 50 years later.
Had William Faulkner not thumbed his nose at literary convention and taken his inner child out to play, the canon would be devoid of such inimitable compound words like, moongleaned, softungirdled, liplifted or scarceused (Before anyone else takes credit, I am claiming all rights to ‘mosspongy’).
Had James Joyce obeyed the rule of plot, ‘Ulysses’ — the greatest novel ever written according to many — would’ve never been written. A story, as points author Colum Mccann, in which nothing really happens except for “a cuckold walking around Dublin for 24 hours with no shootouts, no cheap shots, no car crashes — though there is a biscuit tin launched through the air. Just a vast compendium of human experience.”
The man who is about to blow his top does not have to fix his eye on the Iliad, the Divine Comedy, or any other great model; he has only to give us, in his own language, the saga of his woes and tribulations. — Henry Miller
Had Gabriel García Márquez been a “muggle,” this famous opening line in literature would’ve been lost: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
Had Benoit Mandelbrot not done the romantic, childish, and absurd, he would’ve never discovered ‘God’s Thumbprint.’
And if you (now scratching your head wondering what to write) want to get your creative juices flowing, take your inner child on a wild carpet ride and go build a castle in the air with these magic bricks:
“I wonder… What if… If only…”
Then come back to the blank page and write outside the lines.