Saturday, October 16, 2010

Benoit Mandelbrot

I met Benoit Mandelbrot twenty years ago for a few minutes. I was then a young student of science and he was making a presentation on fractals on campus (according to his resume it was in 1990). He wasn't invited by the physics or some engineering department but some enlightened soul decided he should be a featured speaker at the MSC. Most of the audience knew about fractals already so the presentation was really just a rehash of things we had already read but it was just exciting to hear him speak on the matter. Fractals are one of the few things that talks to people irrespective to their background. After his talk, I started something I have not stopped doing since: I asked him a question. As it turns out, I realized from our interaction that asking a question was the best compliment you could make a presenter. It shows that the subject of the presentation moved you so much that you'd rather ignore all kinds of social rules and face ridicule than not have an answer to your burning question. In fact, the presenter and his response should make it worthwhile for you to cross that threshold. I understood that when I asked that question to Mandelbrot. Even though it was a very basic question, Mandelbrot took it seriously and patiently answered it. That day, I realized that all this conditioning from my French upbringing of censoring oneself and not questionning openly scientific "authorities" was misplaced. It was a very liberating experience. An experience that I continue mimicking on this very blog and the meetings I attend.

I have my own thought about Fractals and was in the process of writing another small entry on compressed sensing and fractals at some point in time after having watched recently Hunting the Hidden Dimension. But the thought of Mandelbrot's disappearance makes this a little heavier than I initially thought.

Hunting the Hidden Dimension can be watched on Google Video here.

(Thanks Shubbendu)

By the way, let it be known once and for all, that Mandelbrot's initial illustration of fractals was utilizing the coast of  Brittany not Britain's.
Bon Voyage Monsieur Mandelbrot.

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