Every Nerd Will Love This Errol Morris-Benoit Mandelbrot Interview

"A formula can be very simple and create a universe of bottomless complexity."
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Perhaps it's because they create an infinity of interesting from simple equations.

Perhaps it's because they suggest that many seemingly chaotic phenomena have an underlying order. 

Perhaps it's because they were great early screensavers.

But nerds love fractals. 

Especially the fractals of the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot, whose Mandelbrot set was included in the After Dark screensaver package, right next to the flying toasters. 

IBM, where Mandelbrot worked, knows nerds love fractals. And so, today, they released a video featuring an interview of Mandelbrot by the iconoclastic filmmaker Errol Morris. It may be the best company propaganda I've ever seen. Who wouldn't want to go work for Big Blue after seeing Mandelbrot's émigré charm? 

From the first moment, the video is amazing.

Morris says, "The fractal stuff... What was the origins of that?" We watch Mandelbrot hear the question. As it finishes, we watch emotion flicker over his face for just a second longer than you expect. "The fractal stuff" was the most notable discovery of his life, which ended 19 days later.

The video has a poignance that marketing should practically be barred from deploying. Here's Mandelbrot on publishing his book on fractals: 

And then I wrote a little book. It was in French actually. And it had no title because in a certain sense, I had not felt the need of a word for fractal. And the publisher, he told me, "Ridiculous! You must invent a word if you wish for that." I thought and thought. I went to my son's study room. He had a Latin dictionary and I was looking for a word which somehow fit the idea of something I was doing. It was 'fractal.' Giving it a word gave the topic a certain reality. It's now in every dictionary. 

It wasn't the word that made fractals real for me. It was seeing them generated by the screensaver. I would become mesmerized, watching the computer spit out infinity. 

Times haven't changed too much: there are thousands upon thousands of fractal videos on YouTube. Not to mention fractal generators for every platform on earth. 

Nerds still love fractals. Rest in peace, Benoit Mandelbrot.

 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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