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The Islands of Benoit Mandelbrot – Nina Samuel (Ed.) **

Benoit Mandelbrot was the poster-boy of chaos and fractals, in a sense literally as the graphic version of his Mandelbrot set occupied many an arty poster in its time. There’s no doubt Mandelbrot himself did lots of marvellous work from his analysis of cotton production to his ‘how far is at around the coastline of the UK’ and, yes, his remarkable set. But the trouble with the arty associations of that image means he tends to get dragged into a lot of stuff that is peripheral and verges on pseudo-science.
The antennae were raised by the subtitle of this book: ‘Fractals, chaos and the materiality of thinking.’ Is ‘materiality’ even a word?
It also doesn’t help that this book is a collection of articles. There is no narrative thrust – it’s not going anywhere. Allegedly the book shows how ‘images actually further knowledge.’ There is an element of truth in that idea, though it sounds rather like wishful thinking on the part of arty people who want to be scientific. But the approach taken – to use images found in the late Dr Mandelbrot’s office smacks of opportunism with no great interest in imparting wisdom.
One or two of the pieces are worth dipping into , particularly the one on ‘Nature in Mandelbrot’s Geometry’, but many of them are not worth wasting time on. Overall this is certainly not popular science. In fact it’s hard to see what it is, except self-indulgant.

Review by Peter Spitz


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