Benoit Mandelbrot. Mandelbrot is one of the few people in history whose face is completely unknown even as the designs based on his math are instantly recognized. He is also one of the few mathematicians to percolate through popular culture. In high school, t-shirts with designs of his "fractal" patterns first became popular. Earlier this year, I read a series of books in which the supernatural monsters that plague mankind come from "the bottom of the Mandelbrot set."
Before his death earlier this month in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the age of 85, he had produced a new branch of mathematics, which he called fractal geometry. It was based on the observation of same-shape, different-scale repetition in an object or within a data set. It was a marvelous description of so much in nature, everything from flowers to river deltas to galaxies. The math that expresses this repetition is used in algorithms governing data compression on the Internet, in video games and even in financial analysis.
Mandelbrot was a meddlesome sort to those in academic circles. He was sometimes confrontational and radically cross-disciplinary. The fact that MIT did not grant him tenure until he was 75 and he never won a Nobel, despite the influence of his math, may be related to those elements of his psyche and personality. Mandelbrot was born in Poland, raised in France and worked in the U.S.
Robert Truax Remember when Evel Knievel tried to jump the Snake River Canyon? No? Sigh. Geeks these days. Alright, watch this video. OK? Truax was the guy who built the rocket. That alone earned him his geek bona fides. But he was a guy who never stopped. A relentless booster of the American space program, he had enormous heart - we'd all be running along to the space-supermarket in our space-cars by now if it were up to him. We don''t. But if we ever do, it will be in part due to Truax.
Considered to be one of the most important rocket engineers in history, he was a career Navy man. He debriefed Werner Von Braun and other German rocket engineers who immigrated to the U.S. after World War II. He laid the ground work for the rockets that were used for decades in space exploration and more. He was instrumental in leading the Thor, Viking and Polaris missile programs.
Always a proponent of DIY, his "Bob's Space Program" was a serious effort to help civilians reach space. Although it lacked sufficient money, it had a democratic spirit wholly lacking in today's civilian space efforts.