Feature

Benoît Mandelbrot, 1924–2010

The geometer who sought order in chaos

Benoît Mandelbrot’s favorite joke epitomized the quirky way his mind worked. “I was born in Poland and raised in France,” he would say. “Therefore, on average, I am a German.” Mandelbrot brought the same offbeat perspective to geometry, which he revolutionized with techniques that captured the rough edges of the natural world.

Mandelbrot, who died last week at 85, “was known as a maverick who went his own way in the world of science,” said The Washington Post. With little regard for disciplinary boundaries, he tackled knotty problems in fields as disparate as astrophysics and economics and made “important contributions to chaos theory.” His own early life was a product of chaos. He was born to a Jewish family in Poland and immigrated with his parents to France in 1936. He remained in France during the German occupation, hiding out in the countryside to evade capture.

After the war, Mandelbrot stayed in France long enough to earn a doctorate in mathematics, then immigrated in 1952 to the U.S., where his career bounced between IBM and academia, said the London Guardian. Fond of “asking questions others considered worthless,” in 1967 he published an essay that asked how long the rugged British coast was, arguing that it was formed by such rough, uneven lines that its length was essentially infinite. The paper contained the seeds of his later work with fractals: irregular shapes—as small as a skin cell or as large as a galaxy—that, when fractured, are replicated in their constituent pieces. His scientific life, he told an interviewer, was “one long, ardent pursuit of the concept of roughness.”

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