Sunday, October 17, 2010

Benoît Mandelbrot.

Benîot Mandelbrot passed away on Thursday at the age of 85. He was among the single greatest mathematicians on the 20th century.

He started out as a brilliant young mathematician doing interesting work with economic trends. Then he came across a problem: how long is the coast of Britain? The problem is, the smaller increments you use, the more tiny coves and ripples you measure. The coastline is actually of infinite length. And it's self-similar. You see 20-mile bays, 1-mile coves, 1-meter streams, 1-centimeter cracks. They all have similar shapes.

Now, mathematicians had found a few fractals before, but they just thought they were isolated curiosities. Mandelbrot took them and showed how they were related. He showed how to measure them, and give a dimension to curves that were between the normal dimensions of 1 (line) and 2 (plane) and 3(3D surface). He showed how everything in nature is fractal, from ferns to coastlines to clouds to ice to crystals to economics to lightning.

He single-handedly invented a brand-new branch of scientific study. That's possibly the rarest human achievement. Newton invented calculus. Einstein, relativistic physics. That's heady company.

He pioneered the use of computer graphics in mathematical study. Those computer fractals - they form the light, the water, the terrain - all the graphics of video games and simulators. You've seen his famous Mandelbrot set on t-shirts:

Rest in peace, Mr. Mandelbrot. Your legacy will live on, in the wealth of information you have given us and the far-reaching disciplines you have influenced. Also, your asteroid.

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