Benoit Mandelbrot the Maverick, 1924-2010

More

fractalgeometry.jpgThe world is mourning the loss of the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, who may have established a record by earning tenure at Yale in 1999, 75 years after his birth. (There's an excellent older profile of him by James Gleick here.)

What took so long, given that his 1982 book The Fractal Geometry of Nature had become one of his field's most influential works? Flying in the face of the Establishment with unconventional ideas and methods, creating what the historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn called a paradigm shift, is highly esteemed in academia -- until somebody actually does it.

Which came first, Mandelbrot's alleged rock-star attitude or the condescension of many of his mathematical peers? All I can say is that as a science editor I knew him slightly -- unfortunately never succeeded in publishing any of his work -- and found him to be an unassuming person with a wonderful sense of humor.

According to the Times obituary, Mandelbrot described his own career between his prestigious early education and his ultimate university appointment as "a very crooked line," like the irregular surfaces he studied. I'm no expert on Mandelbrot's life or work, but it's also worth considering that the opponents of mavericks also play a constructive part in their thinking, provoking them to better and sometimes even bolder ideas.

In the humanities, William H. McNeill's groundbreaking Plagues and Peoples (As a recent Ph.D.advisee, I was a research assistant on the project) was originally turned down by a major academic publisher, as he explains in a recent feature in the University of Chicago Magazine:

A medical historian at Oxford University Press rejected the manuscript, calling it too speculative. McNeill agreed, but he had made a decision early in his career to embrace speculation. Shying from it, he says, "is a terrible mistake for a historian to make, because sometimes things that are important are not written down. And sometimes the things that are written down are not true."
Likewise in science, some valuable ideas may be hard to prove rigorously. The work of Alfred Wegener, the German meteorologist who first proposed the theory of continental drift, took decades to be considered seriously and ultimately accepted, despite clear early evidence in the shape of the continents and the global distribution of plants and animals.
Jump to comments
Presented by

Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center and holds a Ph.D in European history. More

Edward Tenner is an independent writer and speaker on the history of technology and the unintended consequences of innovation. He holds a Ph.D. in European history from the University of Chicago and was executive editor for physical science and history at Princeton University Press. A former member of the Harvard Society of Fellows and John Simon Guggenheim fellow, he has been a visiting lecturer at Princeton and has held visiting research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. He is now an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center, where he remains a senior research associate.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Breathtaking Tour Above the Moab Desert

Filmmaker Ian Cresswell rigs an HD camera atop a remote-controlled "octocopter" for some spectacular aerial views.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Technology

From This Author

Just In