Benoit Mandelbrot died a few days ago. He was a superstar… maybe the superstar of 20th Century math. He was the man behind fractals, the mathematical concept that made it easier to describe complex forms and then model them.

Simply put as you look closer and closer at a complex object what you see is very likely to resemble what you saw at a distance. The frost on the right is a pretty good example.

You have benefited from Mandelbrot’s work. Science always builds on earlier breakthroughs.

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. – from Mandelbrot’s The Fractal Geometry of Nature

Around 20 years ago I met one of his PhD students at Yale. I wanted to know what the master was like. I was disappointed to find he spent most of his time away from Yale. I never got to meet him.

Still, I was gossiping about him as if he was a rock star. In many ways he was. He was able to see through the fog of nature’s hidden secrets with clarity.

Our society makes a bigger deal of Lebron James and Brett Favre than Benoit Mandelbrot and his intellectual brethren. Society is wrong.

He taught a really popular and heavily-subscribed undergrad course. In that course, none other than Demetri Martin crafted a word palindrome to satisfy an assignment. (This had something to do with fractals. What, I’ve long forgotten…) Mandelbrot circulated it to his colleagues- none of whom could find a longer word palindrome. (Demetri built his one man show, “If I” around that palindrome.) Though he didn’t spend much time around Yale, his presence was felt.

http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2003/01/27/030127ta_talk_goodyear

I got the story a little backward. 20 years can mess with the memory- here’s the story of Demetri, the “Dammit I’m Mad” palindrome, fractals and Mandelbrot.