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Mandelbrot’s insight into financial crises; how stem cells develop; counting genomes

By Philip Ball   December 2010

If bankers had heeded Benoît Mandelbrot’s discovery in the 1960s that economic fluctuations and the risks they entail are not governed by bell-curve statistics, they might not have been caught off-guard by the credit crunch. In his seminal 1982 book The Fractal Geometry of Nature, the Polish-born mathematician, who died in October aged 85, argued that fractals describe everything from cracks to the crazy convulsions of the markets.

Fractal objects look the same at different magnifications—forking branch tips, for example, echo the whole tree—so you cannot gauge any size scale by shape alone: they are “scale-free.” The mathematical fractal pictured…

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