In mathematics, a fractal is a self-similar subset of Euclidean space whose fractal dimension strictly exceeds its topological dimension. Fractals appear the same at different levels, as illustrated in successive magnifications of the Mandelbrot set. Fractals exhibit similar patterns at increasingly small scales called self similarity, also known as expanding symmetry or unfolding symmetry; if this replication is exactly the same at every scale, as in the Menger sponge, it is called affine self-similar. Fractal geometry lies within the mathematical branch of measure theory.
This also leads to understanding a third feature, that fractals as mathematical equations are "nowhere differentiable". In a concrete sense, this means fractals cannot be measured in traditional ways. To elaborate, in trying to find the length of a wavy non-fractal curve, one could find straight segments of some measuring tool small enough to lay end to end over the waves, where the pieces could get small enough to be considered to conform to the curve in the normal manner of measuring with a tape measure. But in measuring an infinitely "wiggly" fractal curve such as the Koch snowflake, one would never find a small enough straight segment to conform to the curve, because the jagged pattern would always re-appear, at arbitrarily small scales, essentially pulling a little more of the tape measure into the total length measured each time one attempted to fit it tighter and tighter to the curve. The result is that one must need infinite tape to perfectly cover the entire curve, i.e. the snowflake has infinite perimeter.
One point agreed on is that fractal patterns are characterized by fractal dimensions, but whereas these numbers quantify complexity (i.e., changing detail with changing scale), they neither uniquely describe nor specify details of how to construct particular fractal patterns. In 1975 when Mandelbrot coined the word "fractal", he did so to denote an object whose Hausdorff¥Besicovitch dimension is greater than its topological dimension. However, this requirement is not met by space-filling curves such as the Hilbert curve.
Cyberneticist Ron Eglash has suggested that fractal geometry and mathematics are prevalent in African art, games, divination, trade, and architecture. Circular houses appear in circles of circles, rectangular houses in rectangles of rectangles, and so on. Such scaling patterns can also be found in African textiles, sculpture, and even cornrow hairstyles. Hokky Situngkir also suggested the similar properties in Indonesian traditional art, batik, and ornaments found in traditional houses.
Ethnomathematician Ron Eglash has discussed the planned layout of Benin city using fractals as the basis, not only in the city itself and the villages but even in the rooms of houses. He commented that "When Europeans first came to Africa, they considered the architecture very disorganised and thus primitive. It never occurred to them that the Africans might have been using a form of mathematics that they hadn’t even discovered yet."
In a 1996 interview with Michael Silverblatt, David Foster Wallace admitted that the structure of the first draft of Infinite Jest he gave to his editor Michael Pietsch was inspired by fractals, specifically the Sierpinski triangle (a.k.a. Sierpinski gasket), but that the edited novel is "more like a lopsided Sierpinsky Gasket".
When two-dimensional fractals are iterated many times, the perimeter of the fractal increases up to infinity, but the area may never exceed a certain value. A fractal in three-dimensional space is similar; such a fractal may have an infinite surface area, but never exceed a certain volume. This can be utilized to maximize the efficiency of ion propulsion when choosing electron emitter construction and material. If done correctly, the efficiency of the emission process can be maximized.