Benoit Mandelbrot (1924-2010) was an important French-Jewish-American mathematician. The most important achievement of his career was the development of fractal geometry.

Childhood and Education

Mandelbrot was a man of many nationalities. Although remembered as an American mathematician, he was born to Lithuanian Jews then living in Warsaw, Poland. His mother was a medical doctor, and Mandelbrot was academically inclined from a young age. Unfortunately world politics intervened. The family immigrated to France in the mid-1930s, guessing it would be safer than Poland in the face a resurgent and increasingly anti-Semitic Nazi Germany.

Mandelbrot managed to survive the war in France being swept up by the Germans, and then moved to the United States after the war ended, studying at the California Institute of Technology, before returning to France yet again to get his PhD in mathematics at the University of Paris.

Professional Career

His academic studies complete, Mandelbrot ventured back across the Atlantic. In 1958, he and his wife moved to Yorktown Heights, NY, to join an exciting new research laboratory owned by IBM. It was the dawn of the computer age, and Mandelbrot would play a key role in the new opportunities in mathematics which followed.

Unusual for a scientist who distinguished himself so much in abstract and theoretical work, Mandelbrot spent his career working at IBM rather than at a university. His work included such disparate fields as fluid dynamics, economic analysis, and information theory. In the 1970s, this led him to the new field with which his name is now most associated: fractal theory. A fractal is a shape that can be split into parts which are each small-scale replicas of the original whole. Theoretically, fractals appear identical at any degree of magnification and are therefore infinitely complex. Fractal-like structures are actually relatively common in nature, and include certain tree and fern leaves, snowflakes, and the paths followed by lightning. One particular fractal is now called the Mandelbrot Set in his honour.

Later Years and Death

After a 35-year career, Mandelbrot retired from IBM in 1987. He came out of retirement at 75 years old, in 1999, to take up a six-year post as a mathematics professor at Yale University, holding the chair of Sterling Professor. He then retired again in 2005. By then, he was one of the most decorated mathematicians in modern history, having been given the Wolf Physics Prize, the Lewis Fry Richardson Prize, the Japan Prize, the Einstein Lectureship, and a knighthood in the French Legion of Honour, as well as having an Asteroid Belt asteroid named after him.

Shortly before his death, Mandelbrot was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a deadly and often incurable disease. On October 14, 2010, Mandelbrot passed away in Cambridge, at the age of 85 years old.

Sources:

St. Andrew’s University. “Mandelbrot Summary.”

Yale University. “Benoit B. Mandelbrot.”

Wired. “RIP Benoit Mandelbrot, 1924-2010.”