Taylor describes himself as a type of thinker who jumps across disciplines to solve problems. In addition to his credentials as a physicist, he is a painter and photographer with an advanced art degree. He’s known as a bit of an eccentric around campus. He frequently paddles across Waldo Lake in Oregon when he’s searching for insights, and his hair is so famous it’s almost a distraction. Long and curly, it resembles the distinctive locks of Sir Isaac Newton in his prime. The public affairs office of the university once actually Photoshopped it out of a publication.
Through his meandering career trajectory, Taylor never lost his interest—obsession, really—in Pollock. While at the Manchester School of Art, he built a rickety pendulum that splattered paint when the wind blew because he wanted to see how ‘nature’ painted and if it ended up looking like a Pollock (it did.) Then some years ago, he had a seminal insight while working on nanoelectronics. “The more I looked at fractal patterns, the more I was reminded of Pollock’s poured paintings,” he recounted in an essay. “And when I looked at his paintings, I noticed that the paint splatters seemed to spread across his canvases like the flow of electricity through our devices.”
Using instruments designed to measure electrical currents, Taylor examined a series of Pollocks from the 1950s and found that the paintings were indeed fractal. It was a little like discovering that your favorite aunt speaks a secret, ancient language. “Pollock painted nature’s fractals 25 years ahead of their scientific discovery!” He published the finding in the journal Nature in 1999, creating a stir in the worlds of both art and physics.
Benoit Mandelbrot first coined the term ‘fractal’ in 1975, discovering that simple mathematic rules apply to a vast array of things that looked visually complex or chaotic. As he proved, fractal patterns were often found in nature’s roughness—in clouds, coastlines, plant leaves, ocean waves, the rise and fall of the Nile River, and in the clustering of galaxies. To understand fractal patterns at different scales, picture a trunk of a tree and a branch: they might contain the same angles as that same branch and a smaller branch, as well as the converging veins of the leaf on that branch. And so on. You can have fractals creating what looks like chaos.
Taylor was curious to know if the fractals in the Pollocks might explain why people were so drawn to them, as well as to things such as pulsating screensavers and stoner light shows at the planetarium. Could great works of art really be reduced to some nonlinear equations? Only a physicist would ask. So Taylor ran experiments to gauge people’s physiological response to viewing images with similar fractal geometries. He measured people’s skin conductance (a measure of nervous system activity) and found that they recovered from stress 60 percent better when viewing computer images with a mathematical fractal dimension (called D) of between 1.3 and 1.5. D measures the ratio of the large, coarse patterns (the coastline seen from a plane, the main trunk of a tree, Pollock’s big-sweep splatters) to the fine ones (dunes, rocks, branches, leaves, Pollock’s micro-flick splatters). Fractal dimension is typically notated as a number between 1 and 2; the more complex the image, the higher the D.