Monk's 'Startling' Math Discovery

ByABC News
April 27, 2001, 1:14 PM

April 1 -- An astonishing instance of mathematical anticipation has recently come to light, showing that a monk discovered a complex formula centuries earlier than previously thought.

The Mandelbrot set is one of those dizzying fractal shapes thathave come to symbolize the modern science of chaos theory. Like all suchshapes, it is indefinitely convoluted and has arcs giving rise to smaller arcs and flares branching into smaller flares.

Oriented vertically, it can be viewed as a star, and it is this way of seeing the set that leads to what is probably one of the most arresting discoveries in the history of mathematics.

In his wonderfully multitudinous Web site, The Apothecarys Drawer (see Web link, left), Roy Girvan, an Englishscience writer and Web designer, tells the story of a retired mathematics professor traveling in Germany who was shocked to see in a medieval religious manuscript a nativity scene with a Star of Bethlehem in the unmistakable shape of the Mandelbrot set.

Bill Gates in the Dead Sea Scrolls

The professor, Bob Schipke, confessed to being stunned. It was like finding a picture of Bill Gates in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The title page named the copyist as Udo of Aachen, and I just had to find out more about this guy.

After investigation, Schipke discovered that this 13th century monk, previously known only for his poetry and essays, had discovered the simple secret for the generation of the Mandelbrot set 700 years before Benoit Mandelbrot!

Happily, some of Udos notebooks have survived, and Schipke foundthat the genius monk wrote knowledgeably about the notion of probability. He also discovered that the monk had discovered a method for estimating thevalue of pi that had previously been thought to have been first employed by 18th century naturalist Comte de Buffon.

But Udo of Aachens most staggering feat is the construction of theMandelbrot set, which involves the multiplication of complex numbers.