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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Kepler Moment

Reading The Fractalist, Memoir of a Scientific Maverick, Benoit Mandelbrot’s autobiography, he was continually looking for the possibility of a Kepler Moment. If I had a science teacher who understood and communicated the concept, I probably would have ended up as more of a researcher.

Mandelbrot’s lifetime search for the Kepler Moment is the game of creative science.

When Copernicus developed the heliocentric model of the solar system, he posited that planet orbits were circular. As observational data improved, much of it didn’t fit circular orbits.

A century and a half later, Johannes Kepler realized that the oval shape of observed orbits were caused by two or more gravitational centers flattening a round orbit to more of an oval. That was the first Kepler Moment, assuring his scientific fame and opening new areas of research.

Another aspect of the Kepler Moment was how taking knowledge from one field of study (geometry) could overcome a block in another field of study (astronomy).

From an early age, Mandelbrot was looking for his Kepler Moments, storing knowledge from a variety of disciplines. His search to knowledge led him away from traditional fields of study and safe, tenured positions to seek the cutting edge of scientific inquiry.

Mandelbrot was never insulated from the world. His parents had to start over six times before he got to college, and his high school was spent dodging Vichy government in WWII France. With postdoctoral study at CalTech, Geneva, Paris, MIT, and the Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton), he got up close and personal with many of the leading scientists of post WWII, and saw their Kepler Moments.

He thought he was a slow starter taking years in the pursuit of knowledge to build his foundational base, but by the end of his career he had created over a dozen Kepler Moments, in a wide variety of fields, and invented the successor to calculus, the study of fractals.

Calculus is the measurement of infinite points in a line, fractals is the study of roughness of surfaces.

By the end of his career, he had bound together many fields of study, creating a string of Kepler Moments. That’s a career plan for a scientist.

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