Mandelbrot 1924-2010

Benoît B. Mandelbrot, a mathematical maverick and curmudgeon extraordinaire has passed away at the age of 85 (NYTimes obit.)  Mandelbrot is most well known for coining the word “fractal” and studying the set which now bears his name, but was also one of the first people to recognize that price changes empirically are not well described by a Gaussian distribution.  Mandlebrot’s middle initial was self-assigned and, apparently, didn’t stand for anything.  However, I’ve always like to imagine that, actually, the “B” stood for “Benoît B. Mandelbrot”.

Like many I’m sure my first encounter with the Mandelbrot set was through a Scientific American by  A.K. Dewdney (who, I’m sad to report, is now a 9/11 doubter.)  For many years, the Mandelbrot set was the first program I’d write when encountering a new computer or was learning a new programming language.   One could get an idea of the speed of the computer by doing this in a few short lines of code, but also you got to test out the number of colors on the new machine (which included things like figuring out how to cycle the Apple IIGS palette so as to achieve 256 colors…all at the same time!)  Raise your hand if you’ve ever written a Mandelbrot set program for a programmable calculator :)

A less well known Mandelbrot story is the one that occurred in the journal Science.  There, David Avnir, Ofer Biham, Daniel Lidar (who I wrote a bunch of papers with in a grad school in a galaxy far far away), and Ofer Malcai wrote a Perspective titled Is the Geometry of Nature Fractal? (sorry pay-walled for those not involved in the racket that is scientific publishing.)  These authors did a survey of fractals presented in the Physical Review journals and looked at how many decades the claimed fractals spanned.  The results, let’s just say, were not very positive for those who wrote books called The Fractal Geometry of Nature.  This invoked a spirited response from Mandelbrot and Peter Pfeifer.  In the annals of catty responses, these documents surely are up there among the top ever written.  My favorite part is where Mandelbrot implies that one of the authors of the original Perspective must implicitly be withdrawing his own work on fractals over a small amount of size by writing the Perspective itself.  Ha, curmudgeon indeed!

Another fact I find fun about Mandelbrot is that he obtained his first tenured position at age 75.  Take that anyone complaining about the modern oligarchy known as academia!

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8 Responses to Mandelbrot 1924-2010

  1. On people obtaining academic positions late in life: management guru Peter Drucker had a 30+ year career as a management consultant before starting as a Professor at the age of 65. He then had a 30+ year career in academia!

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  2. Mac McGarry says:

    Not quite. According to his bio page at the Claremont Graduate School (, Drucker started teaching part-time at Sarah Lawrence College at the age of 30 and became a professor of management at the Graduate Business School of NYU when he was 41. Of course, this is only relevant if you think “management” is part of academia.

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  3. John Sidles says:

    Systems Engineer extraordinaire Simon Ramo (PhD, Caltech, 1935) taught at CalTech until 2008 … when he was recruited away at the age of … uhhh … 95 years old … by USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering … such careers are feasible if you are (1) outstandingly talented, and (2) the “R” in “TRW”.

    If classical systems engineers can accomplish such feats in the 20th century …

    … then surely quantum systems engineers can accomplish them in the 21st! :)

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  4. Mac McGarry – the information about Drucker was from an interview with him, where it was stated (possibly by the interviewer) that he had moved his focus from consulting to academia only in his 60s, after he was at Claremont (a position he took when he was ~ 62). I don’t have a reference offhand. Of course, many people have Professorships without actually spending much time at a University. E.g., some profs of medicine spend most time on clinical work. So my comments aren’t necessarily inconsistent with yours.

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  5. John Sidles says:

    Mac McGarry, those who regard management as a “low caste” academic discipline can profitably read Si Ramo and Richard Booton’s 1983 IEEE article The development of systems engineering. In essence, Ramo and Booton argue that from a systems engineering point of view, management is not an adjunct to (say) complexity theory or quantum information theory, but rather a superset of it.

    Yah think … maybe they’re right?

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  6. Mac McGarry says:

    The sting was really in the tail of my comment. At least Mandelbrot’s tenured position was in a mathematics department.

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  7. Mac McGarry says:

    They make no such argument. In fact they don’t even mention management. They explain that systems engineering is an effort to satisfy a set of design criteria, which is difficult for complicated systems, and therefore typically requires extensive numerical analysis or simulation using computers.

    In case you, rather than they, might make this argument, it’s certainly true that designing a specific system might take as input the results of some aspect of quantum information theory/experiment, for example. But there is no sense in which the practices of systems engineering involved in the design of that system include these scientific results. To say so is a category error.

    So no, I don’t think this is right. Nor do I think two industrial engineers care, or have much to say, about what constitutes an academic discipline.

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  8. John Sidles says:

    Mac McGarry says: “Nor do I think <deprecated discipline> care, or have much to say, about what constitutes <privileged discipline>

    LOL … Mac, thank you for that waspish closing template, which can be serviceably instantiated it in various natural ways:

    • “Nor do I think <algebraists> care, or have much to say, about what constitutes <geometry>

    • “Nor do I think <logicians> care, or have much to say, about what constitutes <mathematics>

    • “Nor do I think <dynamicists> care, or have much to say, about what constitutes <biology>

    • “Nor do I think <genomicists> care, or have much to say, about what constitutes <genetics>

    • “Nor do I think <podiatrists> care, or have much to say, about what constitutes <orthopaedics>

    Modern systems engineering had its origins in the SMEC meetings of 1953-4, chaired by von Neumann, of which Norman Macrae has written “It is not easy to recruit experts in fields which do not yet exist, but are clearly going to, and which will soon become more important than those managed by people higher up an existing hierarchy. Yet that is what the committee did.”

    The story of how von Neumann channeled his mathematical researches so as to catalyze this process is one of the most fascinating episodes of the history of systems engineering.

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