Before the late Benoit Mandelbrot, the idea of measuring the exquisitely irregular and fragmented roughness of nature was an idle dream. Today, thanks to fractal geometry, it’s a reality. Revealing the hidden order in what was once perceived as unpredictable and chaotic, it has greatly improved our understanding of everything from biological rhythms to economics.

The Fractalist, the memoir Mandelbrot completed shortly before his death, deepens our understanding of this mathematical maverick’s extraordinary mind. Beginning with his early years in Warsaw, it then chronicles his days in Paris as he stayed ahead of the Nazis while studying geometry on his own. From there, we follow his meandering education at Caltech, Princeton, and MIT; his courtship of eventual wife Aliette; and his relationship with such contemporaries as Jean Piaget, Mark Kac, and Willy Feller. Ultimately, we get Mandelbrot’s fascinating account of how he discovered patterns in a wide range of phenomena—from irregularly shaped coastlines to the distribution of galaxies. This, of course, was the birth of fractal geometry, and seeing Mandelbrot’s perspective as he developed it makes this memoir as inspiring as it is enlightening.