Benoit B. Mandelbrot, who developed the mathematics of fractal geometry, died on Thursday, October 14th. You may know fractal geometry because you’ve seen sycamores branching in the sun, and because you’ve jet streamed your way above a cloud bank, squashed into a coach-class window seat. Or maybe you know fractal geometry because you made snow flakes for your mom in second grade, or you were standing not 30 yards from a tree forked like a piece of broccoli by a prong of lightning, which reminded you that at some point we are all just food for fate. Or maybe, at the very least, you know fractal geometry because blood barges through you in vessels that, if stretched end-to-end, would measure 100,000 miles in length.
Where most mathematicians tinkered with smooth curves and stable phase spaces, Mandelbrot wrestled complex patterns from nature’s mash. The 100,000 miles of fractally twisted tissue which lines every midnight desire you and I share follows a pattern, the same pattern that ferns follow, that the Sierras follow, that the rivers follow to the sea that erodes the coastline that follows the pattern that follows a”…riverrun, past Eve and Adams, from swerve of shore to bend of bay…”
Fractals are closely associated with Chaos Theory: patterns of complexity, non-linear systems, strange attractors so sensitive to initial conditions that a hummingbird’s flutter can whiteout New Orleans, send its jazz kings flying, make all its blues come true. The stock market is chaotic, population growth, certainly the weather, and there’s a good chance that evolution is chaotic in the scientific sense, lurching in ways that are wholly unpredictable yet familiar, so that macroevolution is not the simple accumulation of micro-adaptations, but the recursion of patterns piled over patterns, making anyone who studies evolution more like the Angel of History than an unbound Prometheus.
Of course, anyone who’s made it this far, I mean made it here, reading this, at whatever hour, in between activities that actually matter, like your family and your job–if you’re lucky enough to have one, that is–doesn’t need to study fractals, or Chaos Theory, to know that our lives are like barely stable pirouettes, dim patterns fleetingly perceived. No, we know chaos as well as Mandelbrot did, though certainly without his rigorous methods. We know because we dated our way through our twenties, changing dance partners, but never tunes. We know because we have the same fights with our husbands and wives, over money, never enough, sex, too much, and children, who, even if we can agree on the number, never quite manage to be what we never were to begin with.
So, whenever you happen to be reading this, give a moments thought to Benoit B. Mandelbrot, who reminded us that chaos reigns, patterns repeat, and instability is the rule, especially of the heart, which never manages a predictable rhythm–except at the end.