The Man Who Reshaped Geometry

The genius of Benoit Mandelbrot.

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  1. Newton never said it, nor Galileo, nor Freud. The historian of science Bernard Cohen scoured the annals of discovery for scientists who announced that their own work was revolutionary, but he could produce only this short list: Symmer, Marat, Lavoisier, von Liebig, Hamilton, Darwin, Virchow, Cantor, Einstein, Minkowski, von Laue, Wegener, Compton, Just, Watson and Benoit Mandelbrot. Sixteen visionaries and cranks—and on a bright windless day it is the latest and last-named who appears in Woods Hole, Mass., ready to propagate his particular revolution at a scientific lecture and clambake.

    He tours the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, mildly annoyed that his lecture has been left off the printed calendar of events. He steps into the auditorium, briefly intercepted by a young woman pressing her father's business card into his hand. The calendar notwithstanding, every seat is taken. In the front row, three researchers puzzle over Scientific American's computer pictures of the "Mandelbrot set," a numerical construct billed as the most complex object in mathematics. He listens to his introduction ("…taught economics at Harvard, engineering at Yale, physiology at the Einstein College of Medicine.…"). He clips a microphone onto the front of his short-sleeved shirt and begins confidently: "Very often when I listen to the list of my previous jobs, I wonder if I exist. The intersection of such sets is surely empty." Indeed, for three decades, Benoit Mandelbrot failed to exist in a...