October 18, 2010

Mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot Dies At 85

The famous fractal mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot died of cancer on October 14 at the age of 85.

Mandelbrot developed fractals as a mathematical way of understanding the infinite complexity of nature.

The concept has been used to measure coastlines, clouds and other natural phenomena and had far-reaching effects in physics, biology and astronomy.

His family said that he died in a hospice in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The visionary mathematician had joint French and U.S. nationality and was born into a Jewish family in Poland, but moved to Paris at the age of 11 to escape the Nazis.

He spent most of his life in the U.S. working for IBM computers and eventually became a professor of mathematical science at Yale University.

His seminal works were published in 1977 and 1982.  He argued that seemingly random mathematical shapes followed a pattern if broken down into a single repeating shape.

The concept enabled scientists to measure previously immeasurable objects, including the coastline of the British Isles, the geometry of a lung or a cauliflower.

"If you cut one of the florets of a cauliflower, you see the whole cauliflower but smaller," he explained at the influential Technology Entertainment and Design (TED) conference earlier this year.

"Then you cut again, again, again, and you still get small cauliflowers. So there are some shapes which have this peculiar property, where each part is like the whole, but smaller."

Fractal mathematics also led to technological developments in the fields of digital music and image compression.

It also helped influence pop culture with the patterns being used to create intricate pieces of art.

Mandelbrot was highly critical of the world banking system, saying that the economic model was unable to cope with its own complexity.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in a statement that Mandelbrot was a "powerful, original mind that never shied away from innovation and battering preconceived ideas."

"His work, which was entirely developed outside the main research channels, led to a modern information theory," he said.

Image Courtesy Wikipedia