Although the concept of fractals had been considered for several hundred years by no less than Leibniz, who called them fractional exponents, it wasn’t until the 1960s when French mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot advanced the concept. The word came into English from French fractal, from Latin fractusmeaning interrupted or irregular, literally broken, past participle of frangeremeaning to break, which also gives the modern word fraction. Mandelbrot defined fractals in his work Les Objets Fractals: Many important spatial patterns of Nature are either irregular or fragmented to such an extreme degree that … classical geometry … is hardly of any help in describing their form. … I hope to show that it is possible in many cases to remedy this absence of geometric representation by using a family of shapes I propose to call fractals — or fractal sets.
Image of a fractal in nature in romanesco broccoli courtesy wikimedia commons under a Creative Commons 3.0 license.