RIP Benoît Mandelbrot: the man who put the cool into chaos

! Warning: this post hasn't been updated in over three years and so may contain out of date information.

The twentieth century saw some massive changes in scientific consensus, such as the particle/ wave duality, plate tectonics and quantum mechanics. Another of these great changes was the consensus acceptance of chaos theory. In the first half of the century, a popularly belief was that first we would crack weather prediction, then would learn to control it. At the heart of this claim – which now days seems ridiculous – was the belief that predictable “linear” equations describing real-world systems were the norm and that strange unpredictable equations were an oddity; oddities that in time we’d learn to tame.

The reason why we cannot predict, much less control, weather is of course because it is a chaos system. A chaos system is one that cannot be (easily) predicted. It’s not random, for a simulated chaos system will yield exactly the same result every time it is run. Despite this though, it is difficult, if not impossible, to predict such a system. The latter half of the twentieth century – in no small part helped by computers – saw a shift in consensus. Chaos systems went from being viewed as oddities on the fringe to being accepted as underpinning most real world systems.

Whilst many great people were likely behind this shift in opinion, one name stands out for those of us involved in computing: Benoît Mandelbrot. The “father of fractals”, contributed much to the development of chaos theory, but he is most famous for the “Mandelbrot Set”. The simple equation zn+1 = zn2 + c gives rise to a highly unpredictable – and amazingly beautiful – imagery.

mandelbrot set image
Image from Wikipedia

Benoît Mandelbrot is one of those important, yet sublime, influences upon my life. The imagery of the Mandelbrot Set had a huge impact on me when I was younger, but in many ways his ideas on chaos had a greater affect. Sadly today, M. Mandelbrot died at the age of 85. He’ll be remembered no doubt above all for the Mandelbrot Set. I at least will remember him for so much more though. Either way, today we lost a great contributor to human knowledge and the world is a lesser place because of it.

One thought on “RIP Benoît Mandelbrot: the man who put the cool into chaos

  1. nice article, I still think they are known as chaotic systems rather than chaos systems, and rather than computers causing the breakthrough needed to make chaos widely accepted it was analogue computers, but a good article none the less 🙂

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