Today we return to mathematics, and sadly note the passing of Benoît Mandelbrot. His work was very influential not only within mathematics and science, but also art and music.
He is credited with coining the term “fractal” (literally, “fractional dimension”) and is often dubbed the “father of fractal geometry” – and he is of course memorialized by the Mandelbrot set (which is technically not a fractal). I had written an article that touched on the Mandlebrot set and fractals for this site back back in 2008.
This quote from his official site at Yale sums up the wide-ranging applications of his work to science and the humanities:
Seeks a measure of order in physical, mathematical or social phenomena that are characterized by abundant data but extreme sample variability. The surprising esthetic value of many of his discoveries and their unexpected usefulness in teaching have made him an eloquent spokesman for the “unity of knowing and feeling.”
I did have the opportunity to take a course at Yale for which he was a regular lecturer (the course was taught by his former colleague at IBM Research, Richard Voss). The course was aimed at an introductory audience, and I think many of the students did not appreciate the opportunity it presented – but that left me with more time to directly ask him deeper questions in both lectures and seminars. At the end of the term, he signed my personal copy of The Fractal Geometry of Nature, which still has a place of honor on my bookshelf.
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In reading some of the online articles this morning, I also was reminded that he and his family were part the great exodus of Jewish intellectuals from Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe in the years before World War II. It’s a story that comes up time and time again among thinkers, writers and teachers who have influenced me of the years.