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Benoît Mandelbrot – poet in a foreign language

2012/10/29

The headline borrows a phrase from Adam Kirsch in his review of Benoît Mandelbrot’s posthumous memoir The Fractalist. Musing about the inaccessability of Mandelbrot’s work Kirsch states the impossibility for a non-mathematician to advance beyond some generalities and understand what precisely it is that Mandelbrot accomplished, adding: “For this reviewer, reading The Fractalist is rather like reading about a poet who wrote in a foreign language for which no adequate translation is available.”

Whoever had a look at Mandelbrot’s classic articles on

The Variation of Certain Speculative Prices

or on

Long-Run Linearity, Locally Gaussian Process, H-Spectra and Infinite Variances

would agree with a shudder. And even Mandelbrot’s widely sold book on

The Fractal Geometry of Nature

is hard stuff.

Where is the poetry in all this? People loved Benoît Mandelbrot not for his widely inaccessible mathematics but for what he himself called his intuitive ability to “see” complex shapes and for the “weird kind of visual beauty” (Kirsch) his fractal geometry generates.

There are countless pictures and videos of fractals. In order to get an idea, see one of these:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G_GBwuYuOOs&feature=related

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cakfNwkO2no&feature=related

 Or explore one on your own:

http://neave.com/fractal/

The language behind such wonders surely must be poetry.

We can listen and watch Benoît Mandelbrot talking about aspects of his work on several occasions:

Benoît Mandelbrot: Fractals and the art of roughness; TEDTalk February 2010

Benoît Mandelbrot On Efficient Markets – Interview, FT.Com 9.30.09

Benoît Mandelbrot – The Nature of Roughness in Mathematics, Science and Art  Special Lecture, ICM 2006, Madrid, 27 Aug 2006

Finally, David McKibbin (Twitter: ‏@creditplumber) reminded me of Arthur C. Clarke’s fantastic documentary on the mathematical discovery of the Mandelbrot Set with contributions from Ian Stewart, Michael Barnsley, Stephen Hawking and Benoît Mandelbrot himself. (Thank you, David!)

Stay tuned for more!

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