on natural philosophers

New Scientist has a beautiful “interview with Benoit Mandelbrot”:http://www.newscientist.com/opinion/opinterview.jsp, who discovered the Mandelbrot set and brought fractals to the masses. It’s refreshing to see someone with such history and brilliance at the same time. Mandelbrot is 80 years old, yet he’s still pursuing revolutionary branches of mathematics.

bq. [I am] A mathematical scientist. It’s the official name of my chair at Yale and it was chosen with care. It is deliberately ambiguous. In a different era, I would have called myself a natural philosopher. All my life, I have enjoyed the reputation of being someone who disrupted prevailing ideas. Now that I’m in my 80th year, I can play on my age and provoke people even more.

I have a personal fondness for Mandelbrot because the idea behind fractals — complex forms emerging from a simple function recursively applied and geometrically expressed — provides a compelling reason why it’s possible for us to understand the workings of a complex Universe at all. It doesn’t have to be just randomness out there. We can discern patterns that may turn out to be simple and elegant, even when they are capable of infinite variety.

One thought on “on natural philosophers

  1. Fractals are like that. I like that it’s possible that all the wonderful differences in the universe can come down to very small, relatively simple patterns or formulas. I was reading a book on tesselations at one point and there was a puzzle requiring me to find the repeat. I looked and looked and couldn’t find it. When it was pointed out I was amazed; it was huge! I like the idea that so many things that seem inexplicable may only be that way because we don’t have the right perspective.

    In a very facetious vein, I also read a magazine somewhere in which was displayed the floor of a person who had designed his/ her tile pattern out of fractals. I thought that it would be interesting to do this with your bathroom floor. You’d never leave. You’d just spend the whole sitting time staring, finding patterns.

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