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Exhibition explores the role of images in scientific thinking

Focusing primarily on the work of one of the most notable mathematicians of the twentieth century, The Islands of Benoît Mandelbrot: Fractals, Chaos, and the Materiality of Thinking explores the role of images in the development of what has become known as fractal geometry and chaos theory. Nina Samuel, a visiting assistant professor at the Bard Graduate Center (BGC), is the curator. Samuel, who received her PhD in art history from the Humboldt University of Berlin, is also an associate member of Das Technische Bild in Germany and a former member of the Swiss national research program eikones/NCRR Iconic Criticism.

The exhibition runs from September 21, 2012 to January 27, 2013 at the Bard Graduate Center (BGC) in New York City.

For thousands of years, Western thought assumed that fundamental geometry consisted of regular, ideal forms, such as cubes, spheres, and cones, with straight or evenly curved faces and edges. Benoît Mandelbrot (1924–2010), however, explored mathematics as he saw it— in all its untidiness and irregularity, devoting himself to the study, for example, of the forms of the coastlines of real islands, with all their unpredictable inlets, creeks, and furrows.

At his death in 2010, Mandelbrot left a mass of idiosyncratically organized drawings, computer print-outs, films, manuscript scribbles, objects, and Polaroids in his office in Cambridge, Massachusetts— an extraordinary trove to which Mandelbrot’s wife, Aliette, generously allowed Professor Samuel access. “To explore it was like wandering through the mathematician’s brain,” said Samuel. “It was like witnessing the ephemeral traces of his very thought processes. Selections from these materials form the core of the exhibition.

The Islands of Benoît Mandelbrot: Fractals, Chaos, and the Materiality of Thinking is accompanied by a fully-illustrated book published with Yale University Press. Drawing new connections between the material world and that of mathematical ideas, the publication offers not only a rare glimpse at the artifactual terrain and graphic methodologies of Benoît Mandelbrot and his contemporaries but also investigates the role of scientific imagery in visual thinking across diverse disciplines.