Just as a stone at the base of a foothill can resemble in miniature the mountain from which it originally tumbled down, so are fractals self-similar whether you view them from close up or very far away. The term "fractal" was coined by Benoit Mandelbrot in 1975. It comes from the Latin fractus, meaning an irregular surface like that of a broken stone.
Fractals are the kind of shapes we see in nature. We can describe a right triangle by the Pythagorean theorem, but finding a right triangle in nature is a different matter altogether. We find trees, mountains, rocks and cloud formations in nature, but what is the geometrical formula for a cloud? How can we determine the shape of a dollop of cream in a cup of coffee? Fractal geometry, chaos theory and complex mathematics attempt to answer questions like these. Science continues to discover an amazingly consistent order behind the universe's most seemingly chaotic phenomena.
Mathematicians have attempted to describe fractal shapes for over one hundred years, but with the processing power and imaging abilities of modern computers, fractals have enjoyed a new popularity because they can be digitally rendered and explored in all of their fascinating beauty. Fractals are being used in schools as a visual aid to teaching math, and also in our popular culture as computer-generated surfaces for landscapes and planetary surfaces in the movie industry. The use of algorithms to generate fractals can produce complex visual patterns for computer generated imagery (CGI) applications.
See some fractal image examples.
See an introductory tutorial on fractals: