How Benoit Mandelbrot Discovered Fractals: A Short Film by Errol Morris

Even if you know lit­tle of math­e­mat­ics, you prob­a­bly have some aware­ness of frac­tals. You’ve almost cer­tain­ly heard them invoked, cor­rect­ly or oth­er­wise, to describe things that look or act the same at the large scale as they do at the small. You may even know the name Benoit Man­del­brot, the much-lau­reled Pol­ish-French-Amer­i­can “father of frac­tal geom­e­try.” Hard sci­ence-fic­tion titan Arthur C. Clarke called his epony­mous set of math­e­mat­i­cal points “one of the most aston­ish­ing dis­cov­er­ies in the entire his­to­ry of math­e­mat­ics.”

Nas­sim Nicholas Taleb, the famous­ly dis­crim­i­nat­ing author of The Black Swancalled him “the only per­son for whom I have had intel­lec­tu­al respect.” Even for­mer French pres­i­dent Nico­las Sarkozy gave Man­del­brot his props, cred­it­ing his dis­cov­er­ies of the geo­met­ri­cal reg­u­lar­i­ties of “rough” things, from coast­lines to stock-mar­ket fluc­tu­a­tions, as antecedent to mod­ern infor­ma­tion the­o­ry. He also acknowl­edged Man­del­brot’s hav­ing car­ried on his work “entire­ly out­side main­stream research,” and the math­e­mati­cian’s rep­u­ta­tion as an unusu­al­ly insight­ful intel­lec­tu­al mav­er­ick sur­vives him.

Who bet­ter to reveal the mind of an intel­lec­tu­al mav­er­ick, insight­ful or oth­er­wise, than Errol Mor­ris, the doc­u­men­tar­i­an behind such head-on inter­view-dri­ven fea­ture films as A Brief His­to­ry of Time, about astro­physi­cist Stephen Hawk­ing; Mr. Death, about elec­tric-chair design­er and Holo­caust-denial mav­er­ick Fred A. Leuchter Jr.; and The Fog of War, about for­mer Defense Sec­re­tary and Viet­nam War engi­neer Robert S. McNa­ma­ra? His five-minute pro­file of Man­del­brot comes cour­tesy of IBM, where the father of frac­tals worked for 35 years — and whose then-cut­ting-edge com­put­ers he used to father those frac­tals in the first place. “A for­mu­la can be very sim­ple,” he says, sum­ming up one impact of the Man­del­brot set in this inter­view shot 19 days before his death in 2010, “and cre­ate a uni­verse of bot­tom­less com­plex­i­ty.” To find out more about just how that hap­pens, vis­it to IBM’s page on Man­del­brot and frac­tal geom­e­try as well as their ongo­ing frac­tal-themed Tum­blr.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Arthur C. Clarke Nar­rates Film on Mandelbrot’s Frac­tals; David Gilmour Pro­vides the Sound­track

Watch A Brief His­to­ry of Time, Errol Mor­ris’ Film About the Life & Work of Stephen Hawk­ing

“They Were There” — Errol Mor­ris Final­ly Directs a Film for IBM

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on lit­er­a­ture, film, cities, Asia, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­lesA Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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Comments (6)
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  • RagsOnYouSchwags says:

    u201cA for­mu­la can be very simple,u201d he says, sum­ming up one impact of the nMan­del­brot set in this inter­view shot 19 days before his death in 2010, nu201cand cre­ate a uni­verse of bot­tom­less complexity.u201d — for­mu­las don’t cre­ate any­thing, they are ways for us to describe things. math­e­mat­ics is a very capa­ble descrip­tive lan­guage. nice inter­view, how­ev­er, it did­n’t reveal much of any­thing at all, oth­er than man­del­brot’s ego :-)

    • Moeskido says:

      Points for brevi­ty; in just a few words, you’ve shown not only a cat­ty dis­dain for a bril­liant mind, but your own lack of appre­ci­a­tion for metaphor.

  • Erica R says:

    I don’t think that link is work­ing anymore.nnnTry this one — it’s work­ing for me: n

  • Open Culture says:

    The first video was from IBM’s youtube chan­nel. For some rea­son it went down. The updat­ed video is also from IBM’s chan­nel. I am not sure why they are play­ing around with things. But it should be work­ing now.

  • ted k. says:

    bril­liant­ly sim­ple.

  • Harry Jamesbr says:

    The abo­rig­i­nal video was from IBM’s youtube chan­nel. For some acu­men it nwent down. The adapt­ed video is aswell from IBM’s chan­nel. men­sagens para celu­lar | Tor­pe­dos sms I am not nabid­ing why they are are­na about with things. But it should be alive nnow.

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