The fern is one of the basic examples of self-similar sets, i.e. it is a mathematically generated pattern that can be reproducible at any magnification or reduction. Like the Sierpinski triangle, the Barnsley fern shows how graphically beautiful structures can be built from repetitive uses of mathematical formulas with computers. Barnsley's 1988 book Fractals Everywhere is based on the course which he taught for undergraduate and graduate students in the School of Mathematics, Georgia Institute of Technology, called Fractal Geometry. After publishing the book, a second course was developed, called Fractal Measure Theory. Barnsley's work has been a source of inspiration to graphic artists attempting to imitate nature with mathematical models.
The fern code developed by Barnsley is an example of an iterated function system (IFS) to create a fractal. This follows from the collage theorem. He has used fractals to model a diverse range of phenomena in science and technology, but most specifically plant structures.