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RIP Benoit Mandelbrot: Fractals, math, and nature

Benoît Mandelbrot at the EPFL, on the 14h of M...
Benoît Mandelbrot. Image via Wikipedia

I just heard on the InterVines (rather than traditional grapevine) that Benoit Mandelbrot has passed away. Bummer! He was 85. Mandelbrot was the mathematician who pioneered fractal geometry. He even coined the term “fractal.”

In a seminal book, “The Fractal Geometry of Nature,” published in 1982, Dr. Mandelbrot defended mathematical objects that he said others had dismissed as “monstrous” and “pathological.” Using fractal geometry, he argued, the complex outlines of clouds and coastlines, once considered unmeasurable, could now “be approached in rigorous and vigorous quantitative fashion.” –NYT

Benoit Mandelbrot’s work has led the world to a deeper understanding of fractals, a broad and powerful tool in the study of roughness, both in nature and in humanity’s works.

Studying complex dynamics in the 1970s, Benoit Mandelbrot had a key insight about a particular set of mathematical objects: that these self-similar structures with infinitely repeating complexities were not just curiosities, as they’d been considered since the turn of the century, but were in fact a key to explaining non-smooth objects and complex data sets — which make up, let’s face it, quite a lot of the world. Mandelbrot coined the term “fractal” to describe these objects, and set about sharing his insight with the world.

The Mandelbrot set (expressed as z² + c) was named in Mandelbrot’s honor by Adrien Douady and John H. Hubbard. Its boundary can be magnified infinitely and yet remain magnificently complicated, and its elegant shape made it a poster child for the popular understanding of fractals. Led by Mandelbrot’s enthusiastic work, fractal math has brought new insight to the study of pretty much everything, from the behavior of stocks to the distribution of stars in the universe. -via RIP Benoit Mandelbrot: Fractals and the art of roughness.

Mandelbrot presented a TED talk this year (below).

Truly a pioneer in the world of art and science. Thanks, Benoit!



Beth Kelley is a writer and researcher with an overall interest in how people engage with and are impacted by their environments and vice versa. This has manifested itself in many ways, by looking at creativity, playful spaces and environmental enrichment, sustainability, design research, and integrative and collaborative models of learning such as through play and hands-on learning.

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