Mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot dies aged 85

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

Mandelbrot in 2007
Image: Rama.
The Mandelbrot set, named after Benoît Mandelbrot, forms a fractal.
Image: Wolfgang Beyer.

Benoît B. Mandelbrot, a French-American mathematician and pioneer of fractal geometry, died in Cambridge, Massachusetts on Thursday. Mandelbrot, aged 85, died of pancreatic cancer, according to a family statement.

Mandelbrot was born to Lithuanian parents on November 20, 1924, in Warsaw. Mandelbrot and his family, who were Jewish, fled Nazi persecution in 1936, moving to France. He later studied at Paris' École Polytechnique and received a master's degree in aeronautics from the California Institute of Technology. In 1952, Mandelbrot went back to Paris for a doctorate in mathematics, and worked with John von Neumann at Princeton, New Jersey's Institute for Advanced Study to earn a postdoctoral degree. He later described a series of complex shapes when studying the concept of roughness. Calling these shapes "fractals," he found that they were present in nature and applied his work to other fields, including finance, physics, and biology.

In a statement, French President Nicolas Sarkozy praised Mandelbrot, who had "a powerful, original mind that never shied away from innovation and battering preconceived ideas." Sarkozy said that his country "is proud to have received Benoît Mandelbrot and to have allowed him to benefit from the best education."

In 1958, Mandelbrot began working for for I.B.M. at the company's Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York. In 1987, he began teaching at Yale University, later becoming Sterling Professor Emeritus of Mathematical Sciences. Mandelbrot received the Wolf Prize in Physics in 1993 and the Japan Prize in 2003, in addition to more than fifteen honorary degrees.

Of his own career, Mandelbrot once said, "If you take the beginning and the end, I have had a conventional career. But it was not a straight line between the beginning and the end. It was a very crooked line." He is survived by Aliette, his wife, Laurent and Didier, his sons, and three grandchildren.