Gaston Maurice Julia - French mathematician, a forefather of dynamic systems theory. 1893 - 1978

"In addition to sheer competence, he had a very powerful personal presence which listeners did not forget" - Marc Julia

Gaston Julia was from childhood on, fascinated by both music and mathematics. He was born on 3rd February 1893 in the French Algerian town of Sidi Bel Abbès. His father repaired agricultural machinery, and the family lacked the financial resources to really help young Gaston to develop.

Despite this, he did well in his studies, encouraged by one Sister Théoduline, who encouraged his mother to maintain enough financial support to send him on to another school in Oran. With this in place, he did well, despite warnings that others in the class were a year ahead in subjects such as German. In a month, he caught up, and continued to excel. Never one to give up in the face of hardship or ill fortune, in later years he also had a fight against typhoid, which he won only after a protracted battle.

War and Peace and Iterations

But more battles were to come. Like so many, he became caught up in the First World War, and served some time in the army, promoted through the ranks to that of second lieutenant. It was on January 25th 1915 that he received an injury to his face which resulted in the loss of his nose. After many attempts to repair the damage, he settled for concealment, and wore a leather "patch" on his face for the rest of his life (although his injury still caused him discomfort for years).

Despite the war interrupting his studies, he had nonetheless still been working and studying (although during his time in the infirmary he was in great pain) and in 1918, published his Mémoire sur l'itération des fonctions rationnelles (Notes on the iteration of rational fractions) in the Journal de Mathematic Pure et Appliqué in which he described in some detail the iteration of a rational function* (something which had also been studied by Pierre Fatou). The importance of this was recognised by his receiving the Grand Prix de l'Académie des Sciences and made him famous (at least among mathematicians) for a time.

He was certainly well honoured - the university of Stockholm elected him to the Academy of Upsal and he was also rewarded by recognition from the Pontifical Academy of Rome. Finally, in 1934 he was elected to membership of the Academy of Science.

Like so many mathematicians, be taught, becoming a professor at the École Polytechnique in Paris. His son, Marc remarked on his success as a teacher - the quote above relates to his teaching. His ideas too, caught on, taught throughout Europe, but especially, it seems, in Berlin, where they ran seminars to study his works. One H. Cremer also wrote about his work, and was the first to describe the visualisation of a "Julia set".

Following this, however, it seems that his work was forgotten, until Benoit Mandelbrot (himself a student at the École Polytechnique where Julia had taught) revived interest in them, following his computerised investigations into fractal mathematics.

The man and his legacy

In 1918, Gaston married Marianne Chausson, one of the nurses who cared for him during his hospitalisation, and together they had six children. He continued to enjoy music, (especially that of of Bach, Schumann and Scubert) playing both the violin and piano. All things have to end, and Gaston's life ended on 19th March 1978 at the age of 85.

His greatest legacy to us now, however, is the sheer beauty that our computer technology exposes in his simple formulae. Is it technology, or is it art? Whatever it is, it pleases so many now in our 21st century, and for this, millions may be grateful to one man and his maths.

* "He precisely described the set J(f) of those z in C for which the nth iterate fn(z) stays bounded as n tends to infinity." (that's Zn+1 = Zn2 + C)

Thanks to Google, who commemorated his birthday today with a special fractal logo :)
Encyclopædia Britannica