Benoit Mandelbrot (1924 - )

Benoit Mandelbrot is a Polish-born mathematician who has spent much of his life working on fractal geometry. He showed that fractals are not just the thing of abstract maths and synthetic items, but are all around us in the natural world. You can see them in a cauliflower floret and in the fluctuation of prices on the stock market. He has shown fractal geometry to be the proper geometry of rough shapes.

Mandelbrot’s family emigrated to France, when he was 12. He began his study of mathematics under the watchful eye of his uncle Szolem, a Professor of Mathematics. World War II was a terrible time for people in France, and Mandelbrot’s family was no exception. Mandelbrot frequently stayed away from school, and became more reliant upon his own study and, working by himself, developed an instinctive feel for geometry.

He eventually went back to study and work in institutions, both in France and in the States, where he eventually settled permanently. It was in America that he began working for the computer giant IBM at their laboratories in New York State. IBM saw Mandelbrot’s potential and gave him the freedom to explore directions that he had been unable to take at his previous university posts.

Although Mandelbrot had been aware of Julia’s paper (first published in 1918), it was not until the 1970s that he really began to delve deep into it. Using computer graphics, Mandelbrot showed Julia’s sets to be extremely beautiful fractals. Next he moved beyond Julia to define the celbrated Mandelbrot set. Not only the mathematical ideas, but the computer programmes had to be new.

In addition to his work at IBM, Mandelbrot has been a professor of the practice of mathematics, engineering, mathematics, economics, and even physiology!! Perhaps it is this wide range of experience that has led to his extraordinary achievements in his new fractal geometry. He is currently Sterling Professor of Mathematical Sciences at Yale University.