Benoît Mandelbrot

By: Peggy Nelson
November 20, 2010

Fractals are the poster child for intelligent beauty. BENOÎT MANDELBROT (1924-2010) coined the term in 1975 to describe the many physical and cultural systems unexplained by smooth geometries because they were, as Tina Turner might say, “nice… and rough.” After an adolescence spent outrunning Nazis in occupied France, Mandelbrot earned his doctorate in mathematics, but he was too much of a maverick mind for academia. Instead, he found a home at IBM, from which vantage point he thought outside the big blue box for thirty-five years. Fractals, based on the deceptively simple concept of self-similarity, are mathematical models that iterate geometries of dazzling complexity, and describe everything from lightning strikes to tree branches to the stock market to coastlines to music to mountain ranges to the Vegas skyline at night. And in virtual reality, fractals are the algorithmic engine behind increasingly convincing animations in CGI, 3D, and beyond. Mandelbrot succeeded in that most elusive operation of all: quantifying the wonder of nature, without quantifying the wonder out of it.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Chester Gould.

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