Brian Rotman

  • The Fractalist: Memoir of a Scientific Maverick by Benoit Mandelbrot
    Pantheon, 324 pp, £22.50, October 2012, ISBN 978 0 307 37735 7

Benoit Mandelbrot, who died in 2010, was a Polish-born, French-educated mathematician who flourished and became famous in America. His special genius was his ability to disregard disciplinary boundaries and find a common pattern underlying disparate phenomena. From adolescence on he was possessed by an urgent desire to invent a mathematical object that would transform the way we look at the world. By most accounts, certainly his own, he was successful: ‘What shape,’ he asks,

is a mountain, a coastline, a river, or a dividing line between two river watersheds? What shape is a cloud, a flame, or a welding? How dense is the distribution of galaxies in the universe? How can one describe – to be able to act upon – the volatility of prices quoted in financial markets? How to compare and measure the vocabularies of different writers? … These questions, as well as a host of others, are scattered across a multitude of sciences and have been faced only recently … by me.

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