Scientific and mathematical geniuses are distinguished by a particular elegance of mind. Fiendish complexity becomes something the non-specialist can comprehend. Rarer still is the scientist whose mental elegance creates, or reveals, something of physical beauty. Watson and Crick might have staked a claim for the double helix that is the molecular structure of DNA.
Benoit Mandelbrot, whose death has just been announced, was a mathematician who made it his life's work to find beautiful shapes in nature and decode their secrets. In minute ways, he saw perfect order in apparent chaos, and enabled others to see it, too. He devised, and developed the study of, fractals – seemingly random shapes that conformed to patterns when broken down into one repeating form.
His fractals were invariably things of beauty – seen in phenomena as different as snowflakes and cauliflowers. But his methods also had practical applications that included generating graphics and producing actual works of art. He turned his mind also to economics, declaring the global financial system too complex to function properly. How right he turned out to be. If yesterday belonged to the economists, perhaps tomorrow will be the mathematician's world.
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