The Father of Fractals

Just a brief post to pass on the sad news of the death at the age of 86 of Benoit Mandelbrot. Mandelbrot is credited with having invented the term fractal to describe objects that possess the property of self-similarity and which have structure on arbitrarily small scales. In his marvellous book, The Fractal Geometry of Nature, Mandelbrot explored the use of fractals to describe natural objects and phenomena as diverse as clouds, mountain ranges, lightning bolts, coastlines, snow flakes, plants, and animal coloration patterns. His ideas found application across the whole spectrum of physics and astrophysics including, controversially, cosmology. Fractal images, such as the one below of the Mandelbrot set, also found their way into popular culture; I had a poster of one on my bedroom wall when I was a student and kept it for many years thereafter.

I came across Mandelbrot’s book in the public library and found it truly inspirational, so much so that he became a scientific hero of mine. I was therefore thrilled at the prospect of meeting him when I myself had become a scientist and had the chance to go to a conference, in Paris, at which he was speaking. Unfortunately, I was deeply disappointed by his lecture, which was truly awful, and his personal manner, which I found less than congenial. Nevertheless, there’s no denying his immense contributions to mathematics and science nor his wider impact on culture and society. Another one of the greats has left us.


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5 Responses to “The Father of Fractals”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Sorry to see him go. Once fractals became fashionable I felt that people were trying to force them into physics, rather than simply use the new ideas to further research in parts of physics where fractals happened to arise. But this is a (rare) area where beauty in mathematics immediately translates into beauty that everyone can see, in fractal patterns. I was glad to pay homage at a lecture that he gave some years ago.
    Anton

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    PS Peter – those slightly older than you remember that “The Fractal Geometry of Nature” was a rewrite of Mandelbrot’s earlier book “Fractals: Form, Chance and Dimension,” which is what really started the fractal revolution in 1977. I bought the Cavendish Laboratory’s copy second-hand in a sale of spare stock after they bought the upgrade. I remember also buying a 2-hour videotape of fractals in the 1980s, which had been generated by what was then a massively powerful computer. It beat the last half-hour of 2001.
    Anton

  3. Don SinFalta Says:

    The original 1977 book “Fractals: Form, Chance and Dimension” was a great inspiration to me and several colleagues at the beginning of my career in Computer Science. We arranged to have him invited to give a colloquium at our institution, and my excitement to meet him turned into great disappointment upon interacting with him. I’ve rarely encountered anyone so pompous and paranoid – I was really surprised that such a great scientific visionary could be such a small human being. Almost my first professional experience as an academic involved a very public dispute with the man. I soon found out this was a common experience where Mandelbrot was concerned. It left me with a bitter taste of the “ego confrontation” side of academic research, but it also left me aware that great men are, after all, just people, not gods. At his passing, he had achieved what he was so fearful in life of losing – credit for a lasting impact.

  4. telescoper Says:

    You put it a bit more bluntly than me, but I’m afraid I agree with your comments. As a person I found him quite unbearable, in fact.

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