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RIP Benoît Mandelbrot: Remembering The Father of Fractals

We reported yesterday with great sadness that Benoît Mandelbrot, known as the father of fractal geometry, has passed away. We have to agree with Jason Kottke that one day, Mandelbrot’s contribution to mathematics will be regarded as Einstein’s contribution to physics is today — his geometrical algorithms have been applied to everything from lung surgery to financial markets. And while we don’t go as far as making a dizzifying animated-gif tombstone, we’d like to commemorate the great thinker with a few of our favorite Mandelbrot gems.

In February, we had the pleasure of seeing him speak at TED, where he gave a fantastic talk on fractals and the art of roughness. The talk is based on Mandelbrot’s theory of roughness, best articulated in this excellent Edge interview from 2004.

I prefer the word roughness to the word irregularity because irregularity — to someone who had Latin in my long-past youth — means the contrary of regularity. But it is not so. Regularity is the contrary of roughness because the basic aspect of the world is very rough.” ~ Benoît Mandelbrot

Curiously, Mandelbrot didn’t get his start with fractals as a physicist or mathematician or geometrist. He started by studying stock market prices. His book, Fractals and Scaling In Finance: Discontinuity, Concentration, Risk, is utterly fascinating in a deep yet lateral and cross-disciplinary way that hardly any other financial book has managed to be.

Visually, Mandelbrot fractals have propagated the synth-creative field in the form of trippy, mesmerizing artwork and animation, such as this treat from teamfresh. (An additional hat tip is due to the great mathematician for his indirect contribution to language with such delightfully incongruous linguistic bedfellows as “math porn” — a term that has been used to describe the vibrant, colorful artwork based on Mandelbrot fractals.)

Finally, a gem as priceless as they come — Benoît Mandelbrot in conversation with our greatest creative and curatorial hero, MoMA’s Paola Antonelli, at a SEED/MoMA salon in 2008:

The power of fractals is that they’re so instinctive, immediate graspable, even without knowing there’s a geometric law behind them.” ~ Paola Antonelli

If you haven’t yet read The Fractal Geometry of Nature, his seminal work offering a compelling yet digestible mathematical explanation of everything from snowflakes to coastlines to capillary beds, do yourself a favor and do.

Published October 18, 2010




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