(Artwork by Gunilla Feigenbaum)
Behind the Feigenbaum Constant
It’s called the Feigenbaum constant, and it’s about 4.6692016. And it shows up, quite universally, in certain kinds of mathematical—and physical—systems that can exhibit chaotic behavior.
Mitchell Feigenbaum, who died on June 30 at the age of 74, was the person who discovered it—back in 1975, by doing experimental mathematics on a pocket calculator.
It became a defining discovery in the history of chaos theory. But when it was first discovered, it was a surprising, almost bizarre result, that didn’t really connect with anything that had been studied before. Somehow, though, it’s fitting that it should have been Mitchell Feigenbaum—who I knew for nearly 40 years—who would discover it.
Trained in theoretical physics, and a connoisseur of its mathematical traditions, Mitchell always seemed to see himself as an outsider. He looked a bit like Beethoven—and projected a certain stylish sense of intellectual mystery. He would often make strong assertions, usually with a conspiratorial air, a twinkle in his eye, and a glass of wine or a cigarette in his hand. Continue reading