Friday, October 15, 2010

RIP, Benoit Mandelbrot, father of fractal geometry

It's not in the news as I write this, but reliable sources are reporting that Benoit Mandelbrot has passed away.

Benoit was the father of fractal geometry. That's the geometry of objects that do not have integer dimensions, such as most natural objects, like the seashore, most plants and trees, etc. It's also the geometry of the border of the famous Mandelbrot set whose depiction has worn many a home floating-point unit down to the nub. See Wikipedia for a list of Benoit's accomplishments, and if you haven't read his The Fractal Geometry of Nature, it's well worth a look.

I interacted with him a bit when I was a manager at IBM Research in Yorktown in the Computer Systems department (I think that was its name then) and he was an IBM Fellow in the Math department. Much of what I know was from someone who had worked for him there, who I hired away (that person's choice) to work on parallel software.

Aside from being obviously brilliant, he also jealously hung onto all possible credit from everything done in his department. (This was a major reason the person was interested in leaving.) He probably considered this normal and his due, especially being from a European academic background. It wasn't the rule at Yorktown, though, where most managers were, well, managers, who generally took credit only up the management chain, not outside it.

At one point, he expressed annoyance at being given an IBM Outstanding Achievement award, stating that once someone has a higher award (IBM Fellow, numerous math society awards), one is not given a lesser award.

My most outstanding memory of him: One of the few times I spoke with him, about getting paperwork done on that person's transfer, he shifted slightly in his seat and noisily farted. Either his social skills were less than polished (they weren't), or he was expressing an opinion (certainly not impossible). In either case, I guess I'm a member of an elite group -- those farted upon by Benoit.

He certainly made a major contribution to the world. Given the obvious photogenic character of his discoveries (see the book), I'm surprised there haven't been 67 Discovery/Science Channel re- re- discussions of it, like there are for other photogenic areas of science. Maybe those will show up now. Too bad. He would have loved to be the subject, and seen them.

May he Rest in Peace.


  1. nice writings ... one of the rare ones where it is very factual and not just eulogical that would appear in magazines etc.
    European - American psycoepistemology was interesting, add to south asian and asian ting and u will realize how competitive-ness brings in lot of weirdities. Blame the capitalism and the risk of falling into routine things. I remember C Chandrashekhar, the person who invented Chandrashekhar limit - how he was reluctant to come to India because the then prime-minister could not guarentee him no-admin responsibility job. He faced some racism in US as well. So one can imagine, how the psycological position of the brillinat striving only for innovations could be.

  2. Sorry about that, RIP Mr. Mandelbrot.

    BTW: Greg, brilliant writing. Could only be more realistic and precise if there was a way to listen the fart while reading...



Thanks for contributing.