When I seek, I look, look, look …. – Benoit Mandelbroit.
The Mandebrot set is not an invention of the human mind: it was a discovery. Like Mount Everest, the Mandelbrot set was just there. – Sir Roger Penrose.
C’est l’infini dans le fini – Baudelaire.
I do not see how a man can work on the frontiers of science and write poetry at the same time. They are in opposition. In science you want to say something that nobody knew before, in words which everyone can understand. In poetry you are bound to say…. something that everyone knows already in words that nobody can understand. – Paul M Dirac.2
… the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all science …. – Wordsworth, of poetry.
An eye, a camera, binoculars, an easel, an equation? A cauliflower blossoms microscopically into smaller and smaller florets, a coastline magnified unearths shore within shore. A mirror is sometimes a rabid dog, a glockenspiel tinkling insight, a simulacrum of a past. One memory fertilises another. At school ‘un crack’, ‘un taupin’3. Where some saw runes stuttered across the page, hazed by miscreant radicals that altered meaning, he tweaked the co-ordinates of the triple integral and opened the slumbering sphere like a water lily. The prize was his. Keppler sensed the planets defer elliptically when they turn their orbits back toward the sun, became the young student’s comet. First aeronautics, but no reef or strip to earth his interest. Then, on a visit with his uncle, a treatise rescued from a wastepaper bin, English words piled into a histogram: those used most formed lofty citadels, the barely uttered plunged into a weeping trail begging for larynx or glottis─rank and frequency made cousins. He intuited such shapes in unforeseen places: islands in an archipelago, the populations of cities, income and wealth ….. a dissertation of his own, a career that bequeathed him the parenthood of the “tails” he found undocked everywhere he looked. Hallowed Harvard, he noticed in a corridor a blackboard chalked with cotton prices–his word clusters morphed into a new theory of finance. After the attestation of a century’s evidence, the old model, one of smoothness borrowed from the physics of gas, ruptured by the discontinuities he discovered–risks lurking in the vapour─ familial patterns from years to months to days. But those princes would not grant him a mantle until years later. In an IBM laboratory unshaded by academic towers, when research was its own forge, problems he could not visualise, wood and trees interchangeable, bramble upon thicket, one’s branch another’s trunk. The swirl he observed settled into passing predictability but a replacement stability percolated all the while beneath the glassy surface, ready to assert itself. He sketched, painted, lit, exploded and scaled them with a supercomputer, discovered spirals, curlicues, beetles and seahorses weft by tendrils and filaments; descending like Dante into the higher fractals of their being he saw them reproduced: piccolo to flute, soprano to tenor. At first he suspected machine malfunction, but looked again and again and found them set indissolubly. His thesis: we are beholden to what we see (if only fleetingly)─the comet moves on; his legacy burns in the metered sky like Keppler.
- Benoit Mandelbrot’s research interests included self-similarity (the property of repeating patterns within an entity under increasing intensities of examination), power laws (relationships found in unequal distributions), complex dynamics (which gave rise to the Mandelbrot set and contrasted with static equilibria) and fractal geometry (which explored roughness, as opposed to the traditional fascination with smoothness). Jim Holt ‘s article in the Review supplement of the Australian Financial Review on 14 June, 2013, The rough edges of a maverick mathematician, neatly summarises the subject matter that underlies this poem and I owe a debt to it. All but two of quotations cited prefatorily and in the body of the poem come from this article. I have used some individual words uncited. ↩
- Said of J Robert Oppenheimer, theoretical physicist and ‘father’ of the atomic bomb, who also wrote poetry. ↩
- ‘Un crack’ was a slang term for a high achiever, ‘un taupin’ an extreme nerd derived from the French word for mole. ↩