October 18th, 2010
I heard first through Twitter, but later through many of your emails and comments that Benoit Mandelbrot died on Thursday at 85. I can remember stumbling across his book “The Fractal Geometry of Nature” in my high school library, reading it and not really understanding it, but finding it mind blowing nonetheless. To me, that particular brand of hazy understanding feels like the correct way to think about a lot of things – fractals, electron clouds, cats in boxes waiting to be poisoned – the natural world is really too complicated and beautiful for any of us to fully understand, and that’s OK. That’s in fact what makes it so beautiful.
Many of you have asked if I’m planning on changing the lyrics or retiring the song. I’m not sure yet, but I don’t think I’ll do either of those things. I like the song and it would be a shame not to play it anymore, so retiring it is extremely unlikely. Changing the lyrics, I don’t know. On the one hand, the song is now factually inaccurate. Of course that hasn’t stopped me before. As many of you have pointed out, my description of the Mandelbrot Set in the song is at best incomplete, and at worst plain wrong. This failing of mine is even mentioned in the wikipedia article about the set, so that’s great (although if you look at the Popular Culture section of that article you’ll see that Arthur C. Clarke seems to have gotten it even more wrong than me – just saying).
On the other hand, that’s the song. It’s how I wrote it, and it was true then. It’s a snapshot of a certain time. I’ve never fixed the math error and it never bothered me all that much because you know, close enough. In the Times obit Mandelbrot is quoted as saying that he didn’t really like to prove his insights, he mostly liked to make crazy conjectures to make everyone think about stuff. That sounds about right to me. I like to think that Mandelbrot in particular would appreciate the “close enough” nature of my description. (And just to answer another FAQ, I know he’s heard the song: he talks about it briefly in this Big Think Interview.)
Not to get too heavy on you, but truth itself has a kind of fractal component – you can be right at one scale, but then zoom in and discover you had it all wrong. I stopped trusting people with absolute opinions the day I understood the answer to the question “How long is the coast of Britain?” is “It depends.” Not coincidentally that was the same day I discovered Mandelbrot. That was the question that led him to invent a new branch of mathematics by creating a way to quantify and discuss this kind of weirdness, and it changed the way we think about all sorts of things.
I’m leery of writing this post because I wouldn’t feel right about becoming the artist with the Official Mandelbrot Mourning Song. But it’s true that I still get a little misty when I sing those lyrics and remember what they mean to me – that everything around us is at least a little weird and unknowable and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
That caveat aside, I leave you with one of my favorite fan videos, chalkboard animation made a few years ago by some Cornell students. I’m grateful to geekdad for reminding me that it existed.