Mandelbrot And Me


Fractals in nature

Fractals in nature

When I returned to college in my mid-forties to finish earning my bachelor’s degree, I knew my biggest challenge wasn’t going to be my age. It was math. Never good at math, I dreaded the one additional class standing between me and that degree. So, I decided to take math the first semester. Get it out of the way.

However, on the first exam, everything seemed, as always, to just fly out of my head. When my professor handed me the graded exam, alongside the F at the top was a note to come to her office.

“What happened?” She asked. “You did well on the homework.”

“I clinched. That was my first exam in twenty-five years.”

During our discussion, where she learned my forte is English and writing, she told me I’d have a chance to make up for the failed grade later in the semester with a paper on a mathematician.

When the time came, the professor arbitrarily assigned each student a different mathematician. No two of us had the same person. Our mission was to explore the mathematician’s life and how their math contribution applied to our everyday life. My guy was one Benoit Mandelbrot.

Armed with enthusiasm and curiosity, I sifted through the offerings at Michigan State’s huge main library. About all I could find on Mandelbrot was a reference to fractals, a type of art based upon his formulas. Frustrated, I turned to the still-in-its infancy internet. A search gleaned a mere page about fractals.

On a sunny February Saturday, Martin accompanied me to the Math Library at MSU to continue my search. There, I found a few worn, tattered books written by Mandelbrot. Leafing through his math theories I managed to figure out he was all about chaos geometry. But, aside from the mathematical formulas, I found nothing else. I also couldn’t imagine what this contributed to my everyday life.

As we walked down the steps of the Math Library into the cold sunlight, I asked myself how someone who is supposedly such a great mathematician has nothing written about them. Suddenly, I stopped, did an about face, heading back up the steps.

“Where are you going?” Martin asked as I raced up to the door.

“He’s alive!” I cried over my shoulder.

Inside, I pulled one of his math books from the stacks, opening it to the copyright page. There it was _ B. 1924 followed by a dash, then nothing. No date of death.  An oh-so-brief notation said he worked for IBM. I knew there was an IBM facility at Johnson City, NY.

When I told my professor I’m going to call Mandelbrot, she said, “Don’t expect much. I hear he’s a snob. He probably won’t even take your call.”

Ignoring her discouraging remark, Monday afternoon I called information. But, dialing the number for IBM, I wondered if he was even still there. Maybe my teacher’s right and he won’t take my call. Maybe I won’t be able to get past an assistant or secretary or whoever is the gatekeeper. Maybe this is just lofty thinking. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.

Now a receptionist greeted me. “IBM, how may I direct your call?” I gave her his name. She says he’s at the Ossining facility and tells me to hold while she connects me.

I can hear my heart beating in my ears. My mouth is suddenly dry. Then I hear the Polish accent.

“Dr. Mandelbrot here.”

I am now on the phone with one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century.

We’ve all been in situations during our lifetime where we think we can do something, but someone else is standing in the wings to discourage us. Whenever that happens in my life, I think of Mandelbrot and me.

Though there are many other instances in my life when I went my own way despite the naysayers, this is one which always stands out for me. Perhaps it’s because I was in a learning environment and teachers are supposed to encourage, not discourage. So, this is also always the very instance I remember when I need to catch myself from discouraging another. Especially someone very young who has yet to experience a Mandelbrot and me moment to add to their arsenal of self-confidence.

As aged adults we have many experiences, and hopefully wisdom, to pass on to younger generations. Having an older, wiser adult encouraging them to follow their dreams, to believe in their instincts is a key component to building self-confidence. A good dose of self-confidence leads to success. Does everything always work out the way we want or expect? No, sometimes, it’s even better.

After I got over my surprise at Mandelbrot answering his phone that day, I learned his secretary had a doctor’s appointment. What luck! He not only talked openly with me, but gave me his email address, asked for mine as well as my home address, where he sent me copies of numerous articles about his life and contributions to the world. Over the next couple of weeks I interviewed him for additional information and exchanged many emails. This man was no snob.

One of the other reasons I always think of Mandelbrot when someone discourages me or I’m tempted to discourage, is because he was an outlier. Shunned for decades by the mathematical establishment as wasting his time on chaos geometry, he went on with his work, believing in his theories. IBM obviously believed in them, too. As computers became faster and faster with calculating the data, the relevancy of his work became apparent. He eventually walked into a mathematical conference to a standing ovation.

So, what did he contribute to our everyday lives? Mandelbrot’s formulas are used in medicine, financial markets, geology, astronomy, engineering, graphics and, oh yes, art. It’s used in the maps you look at, in the prescription you took this morning, in the forecasts of the stock market, in the movie you watched last night. There is hardly a person on the planet who has not been touched by this man’s work, work he refused to be discouraged from doing.

As for me? After asking my permission, my professor read my A paper out loud to the class, citing it as the best paper she ever received from a student. She apologized for discouraging me from calling Mandelbrot. I finished the class with a respectable B average. More importantly, I learned not to discourage others from following their heart and I learned to dance more often to the beat of my own drum.

31 comments on “Mandelbrot And Me

  1. Thanks for sharing this experience…very wise food for thought. I, too, let the requirement to take a math class discourage me from getting my Associates Degree. I admire your courage to not let your fear get in the way.


  2. A wonderful post for both young and old. Thank you for your insights.

    fyi – I graduated from Michigan State 1968 – fun to picture you walking the campus.


  3. Well done Kathy! What an uplifting article. It made me realize that I am mentoring a young man on the verge of greatness and I didn’t even realize I was doing it until I read your post. Thank you!


  4. I sincerely appreciate this post as I have many others. Seldom do I reply, but this was a must read for the mature as well as the young. Thank you!!


  5. One of your best posts, Kathy. I’ve had similar encounters with notables living here in NYC and found your encounter fascinating!


  6. Having just finished a week of caring for our almost 3 year old grand daughter, I’ve re-learned not to dismiss creative ideas. Too often, as adults, we forget that ideas can become reality. Your post shows how you followed your instincts and scored!


  7. This was a wonderful story! What is so amazing about it is the fact that I have been fascinated by fractals as an art form for as long as I can remember but did not know I was drawing math!!! I have been horrible at math my whole life. But I am excited to learn more about Dr. Mandelbrot and his fractals! Thank you so much for posting this!😍


  8. Thank you so much for sharing this inspiring story! I shared it on Facebook and I hope it goes viral. You are amazing and I love reading your posts.


  9. Love your blog. I’ve been retired two years & im still learning day by day. Thanks, for your insight on living!


  10. Well written. Past choices make our lives what they are. Thanks for sharing. One of my current goals is to make an impact on my grand girls’ lives. This post reinforces that goal.


  11. Thank you. You have such a storytelling gift! A wonderful reminder to not hinder anyone’s dreams…including your own. Love the “I learned to dance more often to the beat of my own drum”. Something I actually need to continue to learn.


  12. Fantastic post! Inspiring on many levels and interesting to learn about this mathematician! Food for thought no matter which side of the equation you are on- the mentor or learner. Thank you!


  13. Loved this story! You did what was right for you and your learning method and you received a great experience in the doing. Thanks for sharing this inspirational story.



  14. What a great story, Kathy! Although your teacher was nervous about your calling Mandelbrot, fearing that it would be a discouraging experience for you, how wise she was to provide a paper experience as a way into mathematics for the math-phobes who are much more comfortable with words than with numbers. I’m pretty sure that by the time you finished writing this paper, you not only knew a lot about a great mathematician, but you also had a basic understanding of fractals and chaos geometry, and an inkling that there is a whole world of mathematics that is pretty far removed from arithmetic! I think both you and your teacher deserve A grades for this.


    • Jean, Thank you, as always, for some wonderful insight. Yes, my professor was very smart and quite supportive. I always forgave her for the discouragement because in the end she apologized, obviously learning a lesson herself. When I was an instructor, I found my students were often teaching me as much as I was teaching them!


  15. Oh Kathy what a wonderful story and a terrific life lesson for anyone. Maybe all our Mandelbrot moments are not quite as big or inspirational but I figure we face lots of those moments every week.
    I’m not surprised you find yourself regularly recalling this experience. Thank you for sharing it with us all.


  16. Thanks for this delightful story. In 2006 I won an IgNobel prize and these are always awarded by real Nobel prize winners. Mine was awarded by Benoit Mandelbrot and he was a lovely man, doing his bit with the audience of young people in Harvard to pass the love of learning to another generation.


  17. Wonderful story and encouragement! I asked my husband and he told me all about fractals and seashells and more. J


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