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Heads of Laboratories

Head shot of Mitchell Feigenbaum
Mitchell J. Feigenbaum, Ph.D.
Toyota Professor
Laboratory of Mathematical Physics

The description and prediction of natural events that exhibit erratic behavior, such as whorls in fluids, remain challenges in physics and mathematics. Dr. Feigenbaum’s laboratory helped establish the field of chaotic dynamics, which seeks the understanding of just such phenomena. Its overall thrust is to enlarge the applicability of mathematics to science.

Dr. Feigenbaum is a pioneer in the science of “chaos,” the mathematics of erratic dynamical systems — objects with unpredictable behavior and an attendant “fractal” geometry.

Chaotic motion shows a lack of predictability despite the total absence of any random ingredients. While the various constraints on a system, such as bounded resources, can allow it to move regularly on a smooth space, its chaotic motion lies in a highly complicated subspace — a so-called “strange attractor.” Using computers and inventing mathematics, Dr. Feigenbaum erected a full, precise mathematical description of systems during their transition from order to disorder — for example, a dripping faucet changing from a steady drip into an erratic one. The mathematics that underlies this changeover holds true for all systems undergoing this “period doubling” onset of chaos, with all scaling details identically independent of a system’s precise nature, including fluctuating animal populations, electrical signals in circuits, lasers, and various chemical reactions. Dr. Feigenbaum has shown that all these phenomena prominently exhibit numbers determined by his theory, for example 4.6692016…, a constant of nature called “Feigenbaum’s constant,” determining the rate of onset.

A fractal is a complex object built hierarchically of finer and finer details, all similar apart from their successively reduced scales. These intricate formations in space, reminiscent of objects such as mountains and snowflakes, as well as complex formations in time, can be described by mathematical rules, discovered by Dr. Feigenbaum, called “scaling functions.” Scaling functions describe the evolution of an object, whatever its current form or size, and so, unchanged, can be repeatedly reapplied.

In this circumstance, the object produced is scale invariant, meaning that as it evolves from a given size, its details remain loosely proportional to that size, and so, fractal. Looking at systems from this perspective, Dr. Feigenbaum has made important contributions to numerous fields, including cartography: As a consultant to the Hammond Corporation, he developed techniques that allow computers to draw maps of archival quality, with unprecedented accuracy, using a dataset of just one high, fixed resolution. This atlas, published in 1992, contains Dr. Feigenbaum’s “optimal” conformal projections for arbitrarily chosen regions on Earth, and these projections are at least three times more accurate than all previous ones. The computer-automated labeling of maps was also accomplished by a new directed-annealing algorithm for dynamical systems.

During his time at Rockefeller, Dr. Feigenbaum has taken part in numerous collaborations, including research into the electrical fluctuations of single neurons to quantitatively determine their chaotic properties; measuring the way fibroblasts travel to the site of injury, observing that as their path appears not to be random, they are moving chaotically; and analyses of the outcome of optical imaging of cortical activity.


B.E.E., 1964
City College of The City University of New York

Ph.D. in theoretical physics, 1970
Massachusetts Institute of Technology


Cornell University, 1970–1972

Virginia Polytechnic Institute, 1972–1974


Staff Member, 1974–1982
Los Alamos National Laboratory

Professor, 1982–1988
Cornell University

Professor, 1987–
Director, Center for Studies in Physics and Biology, 1996–
The Rockefeller University


Ernest O. Lawrence Award, United States Department of Energy, 1982

MacArthur Fellow, 1984

Wolf Prize in Physics, 1986

New York City Mayor’s Award for Excellence in Science and Technology, 2005

Dannie Heineman Prize, 2008


National Academy of Sciences

American Academy of Arts and Sciences


Feigenbaum, M.J. Pattern selection: Determined by symmetry and modifiable by distant effects. J. Stat. Phys. 112, 219–275 (2003).

Feigenbaum, M.J. et al. Dynamics of finger formation in laplacian growth without surface tension. J. Stat. Phys. 103, 973–1007 (2001).

Davidovitch, B. et al. Conformal dynamics of fractal growth patterns without randomness. Phys. Rev. E 62, 1706–1715 (2000).

Feigenbaum, M. ”Unfolding processes, emergent phenomena and numbers’ structural legacy.“ Interaction: Proceedings of the First International Symposium. Tureck Bach Research Foundation, volume 1 (1997).

Hammond World Atlas. Hammond, Inc. (1992).

Dr. Feigenbaum is a faculty member in the David Rockefeller Graduate Program and the Tri-Institutional M.D.-Ph.D. Program.