Benoît Mandelbrot

So it seems that Benoît Mandelbrot has died today.

If you’ve never heard about him, he was famous to many people for using computers to delve into mathematical studies about that had what he called “fractional dimension” instead of being simply 1-dimensional or 2-dimensional. These shapes would end up being called “fractals”.

Perhaps the most famous fractal is the one named after him, the Mandelbrot set:

Mandelbrot Set, from the Wikipedia article.

I bring all this up if only because it’s probably how I seriously got started in programming. My father had somehow acquired an old Compaq laptop which he let me use when he didn’t need it (which was often!)

For whatever crazy reason my high school actually offered a programming course, teaching Turbo Pascal 7.0. I ended up getting a version of that to use at home on the laptop, but since this was before the Internet was common I was kind of stuck as to what to do next.

I ended up reading about Mandelbrot fractals in the library, and they were very simple to make. I’m not sure where in the Turbo Pascal examples I found working code to do graphics-mode things, but I did, and eventually I had a program that could make fractals in full 320x200x8bit Mode 13h VGA glory.

Of course, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to save them to disk. I still had a lot to learn. ;) I think I had ended up getting a working PCX image writer before I was able to figure out Windows .BMP.

That gentle sloping introduction to programming was much better than teaching languages like Logo or more formal courses in my opinion. Results were almost instant, the problem setup was fairly easy, the output looked much better than plain old “Mad Libs” type of problems, and there were plenty of opportunities for improvement to explore when I got bored.

So even though I’d had an introduction to programming earlier with the Apple ][c+, it wasn’t until I came upon Mandelbrot’s magical fractal that I started seriously investigating how to program, or why I’d want to.

So here’s to you Dr. Mandelbrot. Thanks for always looking further into what happens when you zoom just a little bit closer…