Mathematical Digest

Short Summaries of Articles about Mathematics
in the Popular Press

"Destined for destruction," by Kate Ravilious. New Scientist, 10 January 2004,pages 42-45.

Why did the highly sophisticated civilization of the Maya disappear sosuddenly? This article discusses recent research that attempts to use fractalanalysis to unravel conundrum. Finding that the maps of Mayan cities and townsexhibit a fractal pattern, two researchers calculated the fractal dimension and"soon discovered that other phenomena, such as the devastation caused by forestfires and war, can be characterised by a very similar fractal dimension". Suchphenomena often exhibit "self-organized criticality", meaning that a smallchange can precipitate a dramatic event. The standard example is a huge shiftin a sand dune precipitated by the addition of just one additional grain ofsand. In a similar way, the thinking goes, a relatively minor event, such as asingle war or a change of government, might have caused the collapse of theMayan civilization.

--- Allyn Jackson

American Mathematical Society