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Paris, 18 October 2010

CNRS pays its respects to Benoît Mandelbrot, mathematician and inventor of fractals

The mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot, internationally renowned as the inventor of fractals, has died at the age of 85. CNRS pays tribute to this mathematical genius, who was one of its researchers from 1949 to 1957.

Benoît Mandelbrot was a visionary capable of perceiving the underlying structure and laws of phenomena that seem prodigiously complex”, comments CNRS President Alain Fuchs. “He founded a geometrical vision of complexity by developing fractal theory, which has found applications in image synthesis, the description of turbulence, finance and many other fields.”

Benoît Mandelbrot was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1924 to a Jewish family of Lithuanian origin. Fleeing the Nazi regime, the Mandelbrots took refuge in Paris in 1936, where Benoît was taught mathematics by two of his uncles at an early age. This experience planted the seeds for his life's work, leading to a brilliant and highly productive career. Admitted to the École Polytechnique in Paris in 1944, he shared his time between the United States and France, where he presented his doctoral thesis in 1952. He worked as a researcher at CNRS from 1949 to 1957, leaving in 1958 to join the US company IBM, where he remained for 35 years. At the end of his career Mandelbrot accepted a professorship at Yale University.

The inventor of fractals—geometrical objects that can be broken down into fragments, each of which has the same shape as the whole—Mandelbrot proposed an entirely new way to approach certain problems through geometrical description. He also pioneered the use of information technology as an experimental tool in mathematics. The purpose of fractal geometry, the discipline he founded, is to study and classify natural phenomena that were previously thought to defy mathematical modeling due to their great complexity on many scales—snowflakes, clouds, the Brittany coastline… His work revolutionized our perception of nature and opened new fields of research for several branches of mathematics (dynamical systems, aleatoric processes, etc.). But Mandelbrot's most impressive contribution was the conception of mathematical tools that made it possible to reveal unsuspected links between scientific fields as diverse as astronomy, turbulence, material physics, geology, hydrology, chemistry, medicine, economics, signal and image processing and even linguistics. For example, he designed a stock market model based on fractal geometry.

Guy Métivier, director of the INSMI (Institut National des Sciences Mathématiques et de Leurs Interactions, National Institute for Mathematical Sciences, CNRS), comments: “Benoît Mandelbrot was a thinker beyond any classification. His Mandelbrot Set has been the object of much fascination in mathematics and the Mandelbrot Cascades have become the most widely-used model for turbulence. This universal scientist made far-reaching contributions not only to mathematics, but also physics, chemistry, economics, etc.,—not to mention his vehement criticism of the use of the Black-Scholes model in mathematical finance, many years before the international economic crisis proved him right.”

Mandelbrot is the author of numerous publications, including Fractals: Form, Chance and Dimension (1975) and The Fractal Geometry of Nature (1982), which had a tremendous influence well beyond the scientific community. A true scientific visionary, Benoît Mandelbrot was awarded the title of Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor in 1989, and promoted to the rank of Officer in 2006. Over the course of his career he received many of the highest international distinctions, including the Wolf Prize in physics in 1993 and the Japan Prize for Science and Technology of Complexity in 2003.

Contacts:

CNRS press officer l Laetitia Louis l T 01 44 96 51 37 l laetitia.louis@cnrs-dir.fr


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