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!