Every Nerd Will Love This Errol Morris-Benoit Mandelbrot Interview

By Alexis C. Madrigal

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.

 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/11/every-nerd-will-love-this-errol-morris-benoit-mandelbrot-interview/281616/