Friday, October 07, 2005

Mandelbrot and Me

Friday night in Boston and the temperature was an unseasonable 70 degrees, relative humidity at about 85%. I had spent the day writing, reading, paying bills and then getting out of the house to exercise at my health club. I rushed home to eat a quick peanut butter sandwich and then dash out the door for my hot Friday night on the town.

I had been to the Museum of Science a few years ago, but had to find it all over again on the T (metro) and then find the right bus/shuttle in service while the last section of the line is repaired. The bus teemed with life. A distinguished old man in a three piece suit sat just in front of me, but he got off several stops before my destination. There was a stunning black woman with her little boy asleep in her arms just next to me. That kid must have had lots of experience sleeping on public transportation. He was out. I spotted a few other people on the bus that I suspected might be heading in the same direction as me. I could just tell. Khaki pants, unkempt skin. Healthy, if a bit pasty.

I was late, mind you. So I dashed across the street with a few others when we arrived. I picked up a ticket at the door and jetted to the Cahners Theater. I was seated and ready to go at 6:59. It was just enough time for the well-heeled woman next to me to strike up conversation. “So, what brings you here tonight?” I explained that I was not a scientist, but had heard of Mandelbrot’s work and so there I was. She and her husband had come to the museum for some other event (I think) but stayed to hear the lecture because, of course, they had read all about complexity theory and had followed its development over the years. Yes, well.

The large crowd, a nearly packed house of at least several hundred, settled down as he was introduced. It was a funny crowd—teenagers in workout clothes, college types, professor types, and your well-educated, well-dressed Bostonian off the street.

So Mandelbrot was my hot date. He didn’t even know that I existed. Typical date, he talked and talked and I just smiled and listened. His two favorite words: astonishing and banal. The title of his talk was “From Cauliflower to Chaos: The Fractal Geometry of Roughness.” And indeed we did get to see cauliflower as well as the Eiffel Tower and a Jackson Pollack canvas as Mandelbrot took us through a very brief tour of the history of fractals. It is all about roughness, I gather. For, well, ever, scientists didn’t know how to measure our rough edges. Mandelbrot had a breakthrough moment, à la Gladwell’s “blink,” and he visualized the solution before he, or others, were able to prove it with mathematics.

His presentation was punctuated with his personal anecdotes about Ligeti, the Hungarian composer, and the Empress of Japan. He is unabashed about his accomplishments and spoke with great joy about his work. He obviously takes great delight in his work, as well as in music and art. Really the kind of man with whom I would gladly share a meal.

After his presentation, he was joined by Christopher Lydon, a host from National Public Radio, who moderated the question-answer period. Many of the questions led Mandelbrot into territory that had too much geometry for me to follow. One person did ask him if there were any applications for fractal theory and Kevin Bacon. Mandelbrot commented that “Yes,” it is called “Fractal Networks and lots of people are making a big business out of it.” And then he moved on to the next questioner. Soon enough the applause sounded and we all headed out the door.

I boarded the shuttle with another colorful crowd and headed off into the sultry night. I am glad that I attended his lecture. He spoke with a Nobel Prize authority that actually got me hot to sign up for a geometry class. After all, it is never too late to finally learn math, right?

Tonight the heat should break and finally the Fall should come rushing in next week. My night with Mandelbrot was a hot and steamy evening in Boston to remember, even if he never gave me a glance.

And just in case you are interested, here is a link to a few of many of Mandelbrot's books

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