Music Mondays: Mandelbrot Set

It’s Music Monday again.

Today: math!

Here’s Jonathan Coulton, with “Mandelbrot Set” – a song about the fractal set of complex numbers we call, eponymously, the Mandelbrot Set. Coulton sings about Mandelbrot (the song was written before Mandelbrot’s death in 2010, in case the lyrics puzzle you) and about the math behind the fractal imagery that’s above, and in the (fan-generated) video.*

This could easily have been just a novelty song about math (and Coulton talks about how it started out that way), but Coulton uses fractal geometry and its tie to chaos theory as a metaphor for something very important:

You can change the world in a tiny way
And you’re just in time to save the day
Sweeping all our fears away
You can change the world in a tiny way …

In chaos theory (and fractal geometry), very small changes in initial conditions, or very small perturbations to current conditions, can have very large effects downstream. We often focus on huge changes to the world, wanting to see revolution overnight, but the small things that are within each of our power to do – they matter too. As I put it in Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider, The naming of Iziella** (even with a thousand more namings like it) isn’t going to solve all the world’s post-colonial problems. But small steps advance a journey too.”

And this week’s I-just-like-it bonus: Lauderdale’s version of Stars Fell on Alabama – an old jazz standard, here reimagined as alternative country rock (?):

If you’re curious, it’s easy to find a conventional jazz version. Going straight to the classics, here are Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. I love the Lauderdale cover, though.

See you next week.

© Stephen Heard  July 12, 2021

Image: the Mandelbrot Set, illustration © Wolfgang Beyer via Wikimedia.org CC BY-SA 3.0.


*^Coulton admits that the specification of the set in the song isn’t quite right, or rather, is incomplete. For this reason I suppose this can be my least favourite song about the Mandelbrot set. It’s also my most favourite.

**^Iziella is a genus of red alga named for Isabella Abbot, the first Indigenous Hawai’ian woman to earn a PhD. We often focus on the way eponymous namings can reflect the lack of diversity in past science; sadly, suggestions that we abandon eponymous namings as a result would prevent us from using eponymous namings to celebrate diversity into the future.

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