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.”