Benoit Mandelbrot Interview in New Scientist

This article from the New Scientist print edition has a small interview with Benoit Mandelbrot. If you don’t know who he is, you need to turn in your Geek Credential card at the door, please. A small excerpt:

Q: Even though most people view it as a beautiful image and ignore the underlying mathematics?

A: That’s right. Yet there is nothing more to this than a simple iterative formula. It is so simple that most children can program their home computers to produce the Mandelbrot set.

I thought that this was pretty funny. When I first got my hands on a C compiler for my lowly Commodore 64, one of the first things I did was to try and build a program to display the Mandelbrot Set. Previously I had taken his book, The Fractal Geometry of Nature out of the library (I later purchased a copy.) I wanted to write some software to generate the set, but my meagre computing resources limited my language selection (let’s see – assembly or BASIC…)

I even wrote a letter to Mr. Mandelbrot on a sheet of notebook paper asking what language he used to write in (among other questions.) He replied, and I still have the letter in my files. It contained a signed hand written note saying he used FORTRAN as his language of choice, and he included some photocopied sheets giving some implementation details and hints. I was 13 at the time, and I was in heaven. Yes, other people may have written letters to pop stars. I wrote to a mathematician working at IBM’s research labs.

But I eventually found a C compiler (Abacus C) and began writing, translating the formulas found in the book into what was, looking back on it, poorly crafted C code. The result? After some debugging and letting my little program run for nine hours, I had a simple monochrome 320×200 representation of the Mandelbrot set on my screen, red on black. Later revisions added the color gradients you see on so many versions of the set, though I was limited here to four colors and this halved the horizontal resolution. I even was able to add a simple zoom function. But with nine hours between selections, I didn’t go very deep.

A few years later I got my first PC, and one of the first things I did was buy Borland’s Turbo C and move over my Mandelbrot program. Somehow, it wasn’t quite the same. I could watch in real time the whole set being generated on the screen. Many more colors available. Zoom was even practical and useful. Just didn’t have the feeling of anticipation that the 1Mhz C64 generated as you watched, pixel by pixel, the set being drawn.

Ah, yes, the good old days.

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