Benoit Mandelbrot, IBM Fellow, 1924-2010       


Benoit Mandelbrot, IBM Fellow, 1924-2010 - overview

Benoit Mandebrot

The father of fractals, Dr. Benoit Mandelbrot, passed away from pancreatic cancer on October 16, 2010. He was 85.

Benoit, IBM Fellow Emeritus, joined the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center in 1958 where he worked for 32 years. His 1967 article published in Science, How Long Is the Coast of Britain? Statistical Self-Similarity and Fractional Dimension, introduced the concept that a geometric shape can be split into pieces that are smaller copies of the whole. It wasn't until 1975 that he defined the mathematical shapes as fractals.

He applied his study of fractals to gain insight into disciplines as diverse as physics, earth sciences, economics and the arts.

In discussing with The New York Times his seminal 1982 book, The Fractal Geometry of Nature, he defended mathematical objects that others had dismissed as "monstrous" and "pathological." Using fractal geometry, he argued, the complex outlines of clouds and coastlines, once considered unmeasurable, could now "be approached in rigorous and vigorous quantitative fashion."

Career and honors

Benoit began teaching at Yale University in 1987, where he earned tenure in 1999 and was named the Sterling Professor Emeritus of Mathematical Sciences in 2005. He also earned the Wolf Foundation Prize for physics in 1993 for "changing the view of nature," and the Japan Prize for Science and Technology in 2003 for his work on chaos theory.

Benoit's interest in science spanned mathematics, information theory, economics and fluid dynamics. In 1974, he offered a new explanation of Olbers' Paradox, demonstrating the consequences of fractal theory as a sufficient, but not necessary, resolution of the "dark sky paradox." He postulated that if the stars in the universe were fractally distributed, it would not be necessary to rely on the Big Bang theory to explain the paradox. His model would not rule out the Big Bang, but would allow for a dark sky — even if the Big Bang had not occurred.

In addition to his wife, Benoit is survived by two sons, Laurent, of Paris, and Didier, of Newton, Massachusetts, and three grandchildren.

About Benoit Mandelbrot

Benoit was born on November 20, 1924 in Warsaw, Poland. Anticipating the threat posed by Nazi Germany, his family fled to France in 1936. He earned a degree from the Ecole Polytechnique in 1947, and from 1947 to 1949 he studied aeronautics at the California Institute of Technology. Later, back in France, he earned his Ph.D. in mathematical sciences at the University of Paris in 1952. He joined IBM Research in 1958, and earned the rank of IBM Fellow in 1974.