Benoit Mandelbrot was a maverick mathematician who is widely known as the “father of fractal geometry.” Mandelbrot coined the term in 1975 to describe a new branch of geometry that sought to make sense of the irregular shapes and processes found in nature, from jagged coastlines to the rollercoaster rides of the stock market.
His pioneering research made valuable contributions to a wide array of fields, including physics, finance, medicine, geology and even art. To honor his contribution to helping us understand the world around us, Google dedicated its Doodle on Friday to Mandelbrot on his 96th birthday.
Born on this day in 1924 in Warsaw, Poland, Mandelbrot spent his early years playing chess and reading maps. But his chances for a standard education were interrupted when his family immigrated to Paris in 1936 when Mandelbrot was 11 and by moves around France after World War II broke out.
Mandelbrot eventually earned a master’s degree in aeronautics from the California Institute of Technology, and in 1958, he went to work at IBM, where he began a long association with IBM’s Watson Research Center. With the newly developed IBM computers at his disposal, Mandelbrot used computer code to create fractal images likened to psychedelic art with hints of nature and the human body.
Euclidean geometry describes the flat surface of a plane, but Mandelbrot wondered about shapes found in nature that aren’t flat.
“Why is geometry often described as ‘cold’ and ‘dry’? One reason lies in its inability to describe the shape of a cloud, a mountain, a coastline, or a tree. Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line,” he wrote in his seminal book The Fractal Geometry of Nature, published in 1982.
Mandelbrot developed much of the formula he used to describe the phenomenon, which became known as the Mandelbrot set, while he worked in relative obscurity for 35 years before accepting a position at Yale University in 1987 as a mathematics professor.
The graphical images created by the algorithm have found their way into popular culture, gracing T-shirts, posters and album covers. His fractal theory also inspired the song Mandelbrot Set by Jonathan Coulton and the Arthur C. Clarke novel The Colours of Infinity: The Beauty, and the Sense of Fractals.
Mandelbrot died in 2010 at the age of 85.
As part of its celebration of Mandelbrot, Google also launched a Mandelbrot Fractal easter egg that allows you to explore the endless patterns of the Mandelbrot set with an interactive fractal viewer.