Sept. 24, 2007
Cornell student's animated video makes fractals fun and ends up on YouTube
When most of us think about math, visions of tedious derivative equations or confusing geometry problems are the first things to come to mind. For Pisut Wisessing '07, who is studying at Cornell on a scholarship from the government of Thailand, math can be just as much about comedy and fun as about intimidating formulas.
For Wisessing, a math and physics major in the College of Arts and Sciences, expressing the beauty and wonder of mathematical equations to the masses is a passion, as exemplified by a film he produced this summer for a film animation course (Film 324) that Lynn Tomlinson, a visiting associate professor for Cornell's Summer Session, has been teaching for the past five summers at Cornell.
The video -- "Mandelbrot Set" -- was created by Wisessing as a final project for class. With the help of some friends, Wisessing produced the clip by sketching figures on a chalkboard in Phillips Hall. To produce the animation effects, he took snapshots of the illustrations as they evolved, stroke by stroke, and used software to string them together. The video, which runs for two minutes and 39 seconds, comprises almost 800 individual frames.
The catchy soundtrack, by singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton, also is about the mathematical formula that gives the video its title. Coulton "wrote a song a week for a year, and allows his music to be used for projects like this, free of charge, with a Creative Commons copyright license," Tomlinson said.
Tomlinson posted the completed video on YouTube, where it has been viewed more than 9,000 times. Commentators on the site have commended Wisessing for showing that math can be fun.
Indeed, using math as a medium for comedy was one of Wisessing's chief motivations, and he hopes to continue working on animated films as well as communicating the importance of math. "It's hard to explain how math affects everyday life," he said. "I want to do more about it, to find more material and make it interesting to a general audience, and to children in particular."
Wisessing chose the Mandelbrot Set as the focus of the clip, because, he said, the fundamental simplicity of its underlying formula produces geometric shapes of enormous complexity.
The shapes are named for Benoît Mandelbrot, a mathematician born in Poland in 1924, who is the father of fractal geometry, which is a way of describing complex, irregular shapes that repeat themselves in nature. Thus a leaf is composed of an infinite number of smaller, equally complex patterns.
Wisessing hopes to stay on at Cornell after graduating this fall to work on a master's degree in computer science.
Other projects produced in Tomlinson's Cornell classes are available at http://animationhistory.blogspot.com/.
Chris Tozzi '08 is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.