A self-described “nomad-by-choice” and “pioneer-by-necessity,” Mandelbrot believed that “the rare scholars who are nomads-by–choice are essential to the intellectual welfare of the settled disciplines.” Hewith his discovery of a patterned order underlying a great many apparent irregularities in nature — a sweeping symmetry of nested self-similarities repeated recursively in what may at first read as chaos.The revolutionary insight he arrived at while studying cotton prices in 1962 became the unremitting vector of revelation a lifetime long and aimed at infinity, of illumination at everything from the geometry of broccoli florets and tree branches to the behavior of earthquakes and economic markets.
Mandelbrot needed a word for his discovery — for this staggering new geometry with its dazzling shapes and its dazzling perturbations of the basic intuitions of the, this elegy for order composed in the new mathematical language of chaos. One winter afternoon in his early fifties, leafing through his son’s Latin dictionary, he paused at fractus — the adjective from the verb frangere, “to break.” Having survived his early — he recognized the word’s echoes immediately in the English fracture and fraction. These concepts resonated with the nature of his jagged self-replicating geometries. Out of the dead language of classical science, he sculpted the vocabulary of a new sensemaking . The word fractal was born — binominal and bilingual, adjective and noun, the same in English and French — and all the universe were new.