October 18, 2010
Benoît Mandelbrot, who coined the term "fractal" and whose seminal work, The Fractal Geometry of Nature (1982), turned fractals into a respectable idea in mathematics, died October 14, 2010, in Cambridge, Mass. The cause of death was pancreatic cancer.
"I decided to go into fields where mathematicians would never go because the problems were badly stated," Mandelbrot said. "I have played a strange role that none of my students dare to take."
The outcome was that the fractal geometry he developed was used to measure natural phenomena such as clouds and coastlines, and led to deep explorations of the Mandelbrot set.
"Applied mathematics had been concentrating for a century on phenomena which were smooth, but many things were not like that: the more you blew them up with a microscope the more complexity you found," said David Mumford (Brown University). Mandelbrot "was one of the primary people who realized these were legitimate objects of study."
A polymath, Mandelbrot also made contributions to geology, medicine, cosmology, and engineering. "He knew everybody, with interests going off in every possible direction," Mumford noted. "Every time he gave a talk, it was about something different."
An emeritus professor at Yale University, Mandelbrot was born in Poland on Nov. 20, 1924. In 1936 his family fled the Nazis and moved to the south of France. He spent the latter part of his life working in the U.S., and was a dual French and American citizen. His master's degree was in aeronautics, and he studied for a postdoctoral degree under John von Neumann. He published most of his important work on fractals while working at IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center.
"If you take the beginning and the end, I have had a conventional career," he said. "But it was not a straight line between the beginning and the end. It was a very crooked line."
Perhaps that was because Mandelbrot didn't "spend months or years proving what he has observed," according to Heinz-Otto Peitgen (University of Bremen). "But if we talk about impact inside mathematics, and applications in the sciences," Peitgen continued, "he is one of the most important figures of the last 50 years."
Source: The New York Times (October 16, 2010)