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He Conceived the Mathematics of Roughness by Jim Holt _ the New York Review of Books

He Conceived the Mathematics of Roughness by Jim Holt _ the New York Review of Books

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Published by Marienburg
He Conceived the Mathematics of Roughness by Jim Holt _ the New York Review of Books
He Conceived the Mathematics of Roughness by Jim Holt _ the New York Review of Books

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Published by: Marienburg on Nov 21, 2013
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 Hank Morgan/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
 Benoit Mandelbrot, 1982. Behind him is anattempted computer simulation of a crater  field. Crater fields, such as those occurring onthe moon, are formed by the cumulativeimpact of meteorites. They have a fractal  structure, one that can be mimicked bycomputer methods. But the program that  generated this not very plausible lunalandscape contained an error, leading  Mandelbrot to dub the image ‘the computer bug as artist.’ 
May 23, 2013 Issue
He Conceived the Mathematics of Roughness
Jim Holt
The Fractalist: Memoir of a Scientific Maveric
 by Benoit B. MandelbrotPantheon, 324 pp., $30.00
Benoit Mandelbrot, the brilliant Polish-French-American mathematician who died in 2010, had a poet’s taste for complexity and strangeness. Hisgenius for noticing deep links among far-flung phenomena led him to create a new branch ogeometry, one that has deepened our understanding of both natural forms and patternsof human behavior. The key to it is a simple yetelusive idea, that of self-similarity.To see what self-similarity means, consider ahomely example: the cauliflower. Take a head of this vegetable and observe its form—the way it iscomposed of florets. Pull off one of those florets.What does it look like? It looks like a little headof cauliflower, with its own subflorets. Now pulloff one of those subflorets. What does
that 
 look lik e? A still tinier cauliflower. If you continue this process—and you may soon need a magnifyingglass—you’ll find that the smaller and smaller  pieces all resemble the head you started with. Thecauliflower is thus said to be self-similar. Each of its parts echoes the whole.Other self-similar phenomena, each with itsdistinctive form, include clouds, coastlines, boltsof lightning, clusters of galaxies, the network of blood vessels in our bodies, and, quite possibly, the pattern of ups and downs in financial markets. The closer you look at acoastline, the more you find it is jagged, not smooth, and each jagged segment contains
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smaller, similarly jagged segments that can be described by Mandelbrot’s methods.Because of the essential roughness of self-similar forms, classical mathematics is ill-equipped to deal with them. Its methods, from the Greeks on down to the last century,have been better suited to smooth forms, like circles. (Note that a circle is not self-similar: if you cut it up into smaller and smaller segments, those segments become nearlystraight.)Only in the last few decades has a mathematics of roughness emerged, one that can get agrip on self-similarity and kindred matters like turbulence, noise, clustering, and chaos.And Mandelbrot was the prime mover behind it. He had a peripatetic career, but he spentmuch of it as a researcher for IBM in upstate New York. In the late 1970s he becamefamous for popularizing the idea of self-similarity, and for coining the word “fractal”(from the Latin
 fractus
, meaning broken) to designate self-similar forms. In 1980 hediscovered the “Mandelbrot set,” whose shape—it looks a bit like a warty snowman or  beetle—came to represent the newly fashionable science of chaos. What is perhaps lesswell known about Mandelbrot is the subversive work he did in economics. The financialmodels he created, based on his fractal ideas, implied that stock and currency marketswere far riskier than the reigning consensus in business schools and investment bankssupposed, and that wild gyrations—like the 777-point plunge in the Dow on September 29, 2008—were inevitable.I was familiar with these aspects of Mandelbrot’s career before I read this memoir, a draftof which he completed shortly before his death at the age of eighty-five. I knew of hisreputation as a “maverick” and “trouble-maker”—labels that, despite his years with IBM,seemed well merited. What I wasn’t prepared for was the dazzling range of people heintersected with in the course of his career. Consider this partial listing of the figures thatcrop up in his memoir: Margaret Mead, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Noam Chomsky, Robert Oppenheimer, Jean Piaget, Fernand Braudel, Claudio Abbado,Roman Jakobson, George Shultz, György Ligeti, Stephen Jay Gould, Philip Johnson, andthe Empress of Japan. Nor did I realize that Mandelbrot’s casually anarchic ways at IBM were at least partlyresponsible for the advent of that bane of modern life, the computer password. Whatstruck me most, though, was the singularity of Mandelbrot’s intuition. Time and again, hefound simplicity and even beauty where others saw irredeemable messiness. His secret? A penchant for playing with pictures, a reliance on visual insight: “When I seek, I look, look,look….”andelbrot was born in 1924 into a Jewish family that lived in the Warsaw ghetto. Neither of his parents was mathematical. His father sold ladies’ hosiery, and hismother was a dentist—adept, thanks to her “strong right hand and powerful biceps,” at
 
 pulling teeth. His uncle Szolem, however, was a mathematician of international rank whotrained in Paris and became a professor at the Collège de France. “No one would influencemy scientific life as much as Szolem,” Mandelbrot tells us—though the nature of hisuncle’s influence would turn out to be rather peculiar.Describing his Warsaw childhood, he vividly recalls, for example, the manure-like stenchattaching to one of his mother’s dental patients, who defrayed the cost of repairing amouthful of rotten teeth by bringing the family fresh meat from the slaughterhouse wherethe patient worked. With the Depression his father’s business collapsed, and eventuallythe family left Poland for Paris, traveling across Nazi Germany in a padlocked train. “Of the people we knew, we alone moved to France and survived,” Mandelbrot writes, addingthat many of their neighbors in the Warsaw ghetto had been detained by their preciouschina, or inability to sell their Bösendorfer concert grand piano….”Paris enchanted the young Mandelbrot. His family set up housekeeping in a cold-water flatin the then-slummy neighborhood of Belleville, near the Buttes Chaumont, but the boyavidly explored the city at large—the Louvre, the old science museum on the rue St.-Martin, the Latin Quarter. In school, Mandelbrot distinguished himself as
un crac
 —slangfor high achiever—and even
un taupin
: “linguistically,” he tells us, “an extreme form of the American ‘nerd’” (the word derives from the French word
taupe
, meaning “mole”).What gave him an edge was his ability to “geometrize” a problem. Instead of shufflingformulas like his fellow students, he used his prodigious visual memory to see how acomplicated equation might harbor a simple shape in disguise. In a nationwide competitiveexam, he tells us, he was the only student in France who managed to solve one especiallyfiendish problem. “How did you manage?” asked his incredulous teacher, a certainMonsieur Pons. “No human could resolve that triple integral in the time allowed!”Mandelbrot informed his teacher that he simply changed the coordinates in which the problem was stated so its geometrical essence, that of a sphere, was revealed—whereuponM. Pons walked away muttering, “But of course, of course, of course!”Mandelbrot was fourteen when World War II broke out. With the fall of Paris, he and hisfamily sought refuge in Vichy France, where, as Jews of foreign origin, they lived inconstant fear of denunciation and soon had to split up. Using an assumed name andfurnished with fake papers, Mandelbrot pretended to be an apprentice toolmaker in ahardscrabble village in Limousin (where a trace of the rural accent was added to his mix oslum Parisian and correct French). After a close brush with arrest, he made his way toLyon, where, under the nose of Klaus Barbie, he refined his geometrical gift with the helpof an inspired teacher at the local lycée.It was during this time that he conceived what he calls his “Keplerian quest.” Threecenturies earlier, Johannes Kepler had made sense of the seemingly irregular motions of 

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