Benoit Mandelbrot Influenced Art and Mathematics

'Fractalist' Stood for Creative Thinking Outside the Box

Sharp Mind: The fractal became symbolic of Benoit Mandelbrot’s approach to scientific inquiry.
Getty Images
Sharp Mind: The fractal became symbolic of Benoit Mandelbrot’s approach to scientific inquiry.

By Benjamin Ivry

Published November 17, 2012, issue of November 23, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Born in Warsaw in 1924 to a Lithuanian Jewish family, Benoit Mandelbrot survived Nazi-occupied France to become one of the most creative thinkers of the 20th century. Mandelbrot, who died of pancreatic cancer in a Cambridge, Mass., hospice in 2010, left behind “The Fractalist: Memoir of a Scientific Maverick”. He coined the term “fractal” in 1975, from the Latin word “fractus,” meaning broken or shattered, to better measure rough shapes and irregular surfaces, from graphs of the stock market to coastlines. “I wanted to convey the idea of a broken stone, something irregular and fragmented,” Mandelbrot wrote, and his fractal sets have turned out to have a fabulous number of applications in many additional fields, including mathematics, economics, the sciences and the arts.Hungarian Jewish modernist composer György Ligeti, and Carlos Ginzburg, an Argentinean conceptual artist, have been inspired by Mandelbrot’s discoveries.

Mandelbrot’s mother was a dentist. “Before generalized anesthesia, a dentist’s reputation depended greatly on speed in pulling teeth, and I recall Mother’s strong right hand and powerful biceps,” Mandelbrot wrote in “The Fractalist.” Mandelbrot, too, would develop into a robust-looking fellow who radiated a certain physical force combined with wide-ranging intellectual finesse.

I interviewed Mandelbrot in 1990 at the Paris IBM headquarters. IBM employed him for decades as a researcher (“I was in an industrial laboratory because academia found me unsuitable,” Mandelbrot explained at the time). After our discussion, Mandelbrot, ever visually inspired and justly considering himself an artist as well as a thinker, insisted on offering me a slideshow of some of his discoveries.

These fractal images, made possible by computer graphics, combine some of the delirious exuberance of 1960s psychedelic art with forms hauntingly reminiscent of nature and the human body. No sooner had the visual show begun than one of the images became stuck in the slide projector. Mandelbrot’s sausage-thick fingers were unable to extract it before it started to burn, causing him to blurt out exclamations of frustration and impatience.

This scene of comic fury ended well, albeit with the destruction of that slide, but it points to Mandelbrot’s propensity for finding that scientific high seriousness can degrade into slapstick in a flash. Mandelbrot characteristically took such bumps in the road with grace and wit, qualities that are abundant in his memoir. The ludic aspect of original thinking is stressed in “The Fractalist,” with Mandelbrot offering this shorthand version of his scientific life: “When I seek, I look, look, look, and play with pictures.” Why did he decide to play by measuring coastlines? Home-schooled for a few years as a boy, he noted that his “father was a map nut. From him, I learned to read maps before I could read and write.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.