Our namesake, the nautilus, is not just a cultural and mythical object; it has also some rich (and not imagined) math to it. That’s because it is one of nature’s fractals. These are objects whose shape at a given length scale is mirrored by the shape of their smaller-scale parts. Fractals, in turn, extend well beyond mathematics, connecting physics to the stock market and contemporary music. And who better to tell us about this than Professor Benoit Mandelbrot, who discovered, named and defined the word “fractal”? Certainly one of the best-known mathematicians of the past 50 years, Mandelbrot grew up studying ellipses while hiding from the Nazis in the French countryside. After 35 years at IBM Research in upstate New York, and a professorship at Yale begun at the age of 75, his talks on the fractal became as well known as his shock of white frizzy hair. There was only one problem for us: Mandelbrot passed away in 2010. Undeterred, we tapped into 18 different sources, including three that were unpublished, to assemble a posthumous interview. The words in italics are ours; the rest are Mandelbrot’s. We missed our chance to have a conversation with the man; but we’re confident that if we had, it would have gone something like this.
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