Sunday, October 17, 2010

A fractal career

Benoît Mandelbrot has died, age 85.
When asked to look back on his career, Dr. Mandelbrot compared his own trajectory to the rough outlines of clouds and coastlines that drew him into the study of fractals in the 1950s.

“If you take the beginning and the end, I have had a conventional career,” he said, referring to his prestigious appointments in Paris and at Yale. “But it was not a straight line between the beginning and the end. It was a very crooked line.”
Wikipedia gives us a concise definition of his famous set:
The Mandelbrot set is a mathematical set of points in the complex plane, the boundary of which forms a fractal. The Mandelbrot set is the set of complex values of c for which the orbit of 0 under iteration of the complex quadratic polynomial zn+1 = zn2 + c remains bounded. That is, a complex number, c, is in the Mandelbrot set if, when starting with z0 = 0 and applying the iteration repeatedly, the absolute value of zn never exceeds a certain number (that number depends on c) however large n gets. * * *

When computed and graphed on the complex plane the Mandelbrot set is seen to have an elaborate boundary which, being a fractal, does not simplify at any given magnification.
"Does not simplify at any given magnification" is, I think, as good a precis of modern life as any.

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