The Nancy Set

The Nancy Set (with credits to Bushmiller and Mandelbrot) -- CHCollins.com 2019Recreational math buffs were introduced to fractals, shapes that repeat themselves at ever-smaller scales ad infinitum, in the August 1985 issue of Scientific American.  This was back when Scientific American was a thick, high-quality magazine that respected the intelligence of reasonably-educated persons — and when I was a subscriber.

Anyway, French mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot (1924-2010) coined the term fractal for the dimension-rich contours of such natural formations as coastlines and fern leaves.  He was responsible for advancing and popularizing the science of fractals, most notably in his work The Fractal Geometry of Nature, published August 15, 1982, 37 years ago today.  I prize my hardcover copy.

Perhaps the most well-known fractal shape is the bulbous and prickly Mandelbrot Set which featured prominently in his book.  For some reason — probably that small indentation — this figure always reminded me of the 20th-century comic strip character Nancy, who was created and drawn by Ernie Bushmiller.

By odd coincidence, August 15, 1982, the day Mandelbrot’s masterwork was published, was also the day Ernie Bushmiller died, a week before his 77th birthday.  I don’t quite know what to make of this but I’m sure it holds some cosmic (or comic) significance.

So to properly commemorate this day, I created a visual portmanteau of the signature works of both men, which I call The Nancy Set.  Although Mandelbrot and Bushmiller sat on opposite ends of the intellectual spectrum, their respective creations seem to belong to the same dimensionally-ambiguous world.

• • •

For an intriguing foretaste of fractals in Nancy’s world, here is the Nancy strip published on May 19, 1948, as Mandelbrot was about to receive his masters degree from Cal Tech:

Note how Fritzi is looking right past Nancy, back to the infinite regress in the first panel.  Is this a second way that the strip plays with endless repetition?  Or would that premise give Bushmiller too much credit?  I suspect the latter but we will never know.

Dream in peace, Benoit and Ernie.

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3 Responses to The Nancy Set

  1. Eric says:

    Craig –

    The sheer creativity in this boggled my mind yesterday and, after a few memory prompts last evening, C felt the same. Geez, buddy! I know / suspect that you’ve read (and probably watched, and might have been influenced by (?)) James Burke’s “Connections” back in the day; this is right up there with my faves. Amazing, mind-expanding, and so enjoyable. Keep this stuff coming!

  2. Eric says:

    P.S. – I once enjoyed my subscriptions to SciAm (as well as to National Review – in order to have informed opinions from the “other side of the argument”). Now, I’m dithering between renewing my subscription to the Economist (only because it arrives each week so stuffed with world news from neutral vantage / argument points such that I can’t get through each issue) in favor of either Science News or yes, maybe the new Scientific American. Probably the former . . .

  3. Bruce says:

    “Connections” indeed. The three (or more) cultures intersecting right here. Very cool.

    This also brings to mind your song “Nancy” which was always a favorite of mine. I’ve occasionally thought of recording it but it would really need your piano part which I can’t play. Maybe you could email me a MIDI file. Let’s discuss!

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