What: “Mandelbrot Set,” Jonathan Coulton’s fantastical tribute to mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot, whose contributions to fractal geometry were only slightly less legendary than the demon-slaying versions found in the song. Here’s Pisut Wisessing’s brilliant video to the song, though it doesn’t use the complete lyrics. For that, listen to it on JoCo’s website.
Why: Nerd rock (or, sometimes, “geek rock”) is a genre spawned in the 1990s by musicians weaned on art-rock bands Talking Heads, Oingo Boingo, and XTC. Defining the term “idiosyncratic” better than any other musical genre, nerd rock is played by people who are not ashamed of being smart, except when it’s actually about being ashamed of being smart. Former programmer Jonathan Coulton seems to have settled into the role of the king of nerd rock, with songs featuring the themes of office politics in zombieland, extreme cosmetic surgery, and awkward love in a supervillain lair. (Among a million others. Download them all at Coulton’s website.) His tour de force is about perhaps the geekiest subject of all: math. Writing for a series of lectures by John Hodgman on the topic of things named after people, Coulton brought the mind-shattering work of Benoît Mandelbrot to an audience that might not understand it, but would come to love it. “Mandelbrot Set” cast the recursive shape as a Rorschach Test on fire, a day-glo pterodactyl, a heart-shaped box of springs and wire, and, most pointedly, one badass fucking fractal. Can’t argue.
Impact: Colossal, at least to the audience that reads Penny Arcade and follows Wil Wheaton on Twitter. On the list of scientific formulas known by the American public, the M-set is now #2 all time, right behind e=mc2. Like the Preamble to the Constitution, this generation can recite one of the pillars of fractal geometry theory word for word. (Also like reciting the “of the United States”-challenged Preamble from Schoolhouse Rock, we’re doing it wrong. The bridge describes a Julia set, not a Mandelbrot set. Eh, it’s a better lyric the way JoCo wrote it.)
Personal Connection: Mandelbrot really is in heaven now, having passed away on Friday. Here’s my Wired interview with Coulton on the subject. Coulton described to me the Julia set error as an epic fail, but I think it’s an epic win. Now, the youth of America knows two fractal geometry formulas.
Other Contenders: They Might Be Giants’ genre-establishing “Birdhouse in Your Soul”, in all likelihood the only song sung by a nightlight to a caged blue canary; The Presidents of the United States of America’s meow remix, “Kitty”; Barenaked Ladies’ affecting tribute to troubled musical genius “Brian Wilson”; Weird Al Yankovic’s reflective “Bob”; Paul and Storm’s ridiculously overlong “The Captain’s Wife’s Lament”, here done with fellow pirate Wil Wheaton at PAX; the Boston Typewriter Orchestra’s keyed-up rendition of the Surfaris’ “Wipe-Out,” renamed (of course) “Wite-Out”.