Michael Frame

Adjunct Professor of Mathematics

Michael Frame, B.A. Union College, Ph.D. Tulane, faculty member at Yale since 1992 after a career at New College and Union College: it is sometimes said casually that someone is a legend in his or her own time, and that is usually an overstatement. But at Yale, Michael Frame, you are that teaching legend.

A chance meeting with Benoit Mandelbrot in the eighties at a conference where you were expected to introduce his work on fractals led to your relationship with him as colleague, co-author, interpreter, translator and explicator. It also led to a teaching career at Yale in which you helped Mandelbrot develop a curriculum and then went on to be an instructor of many courses yourself. You have taught not only regular calculus courses, where people have fought to get into your sections, and have developed a specialized calculus course for biomedical majors which treats applications in a much deeper and more realistic fashion than any of the usual offerings –but have galvanized two very popular courses on fractals which have taught students that patterns are waiting to be recognized everywhere. Through pictures, through demonstrating the way that when you take structures apart you can study the patterns in smaller scale and decode them into something simple that repeats, you have communicated the true beauty of mathematics and have opened students’ eyes to the mystery and miracle of the universe.


You say that you are a good teacher because you are able to imagine what it feels like to be confused. Your students say that it is because you are able to enter into them, empathetically understand their thinking, and through pellucid explanation, artful example, jokes and drawings, bring joyful understanding to a complex enterprise. And you do this while remaining firm and requiring dedication to hard work: you will explain endlessly, taking hours of your own time, but woe be to the student who misses class, does not seek extra help, or tries simply to “get by.” They will find no advocate in you.


For all of your teaching and advising prowess, which you have maintained for some time in fragile health, you have received the McCredie Prize for best use of technology in teaching at Yale College, the Dylan Hixon ‘88 Prize for teaching excellence in the natural sciences, and the coveted DeVane medal for undergraduate teaching, awarded by the Yale chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. There is no doubt that on your retirement Yale would like to honor you with something more, but there is nothing more. You have won the trifecta.


When interviewed by Yale’s New Journal we read that someone once asked you how you could see a sunflower and not believe in God. You said, “Easy. I just believe in Fibonacci numbers.” The reporter questioned, “What about things that can’t be explained systematically? To which you replied, “I don’t think there’s anything that can’t be explained systematically.” Your students, however, for whom you are always a fierce advocate, would say that in fact you cannot be explained systematically, Michael Frame, and taking delight that you are such an exception, they and we wish you well as you continue to explain and relish the beauty of the world around you.

Tribute Editor: Penelope Laurans