CTK Insights

21 Nov

The Fractalist

In the Foreword to a biography of Abraham Robinson, B. Mandelbrot has observed that Very few mathematicians' stories justify a full biography or autobiography. He then outlines what made Robinson's life so worthy of being documented,

... Robinson's tale has a marvellous virtue. As we follow in near-chronological order the life of a single individual of amazing brilliance, stamina, and versatility, we are guided back and forth without artificiality through at least three widely disparate academic cultures (pure and applied mathematics and logic-philosophy); six countries, representing six distinct flavours of Western culture; and, within the United States, two very different institutions.

The Fractalist: Memoir of a Scientific Maverick

Mandelbrot's life story far exceeds the qualifications that make it worthy of a biography.

Origins: Mandelbrot was born in 1924 in Warsaw, Poland, into a Jewish family of Lithuanian origin.

Life's peregrinations: he lived in Poland, Belarus, France, Vichy France, the USA, Switzerland.

Education: Warsaw public schools, coaching by his uncles, a French lycée, 1 day in the École Normale Supérieure, the École Polytechnique, California Institute of Technology, Princeton, MIT.

Jobs held: horse groom, toolmaker, French Air Force Engineers Reserve Officer, polytechncien at Philips, postdoc, junior professor of mathematics, IBM researcher, Professor of Economics, Engineering, and Mathematics

Academic associations: University of Lille, Harvard University, Yale University

I may have missed items in one or more categories but, even as it is, this short list connotes a life rich in significant events, and so it was - any way you look at it.

Born between the two world wars, Mandelbrot - as a child - lived through the Depression, an official declaration of Polish Jews as the sole cause of every economic and societal ill, emigration to France, German occupation of Paris, life in Vichy France under an assumed identity, and liberation. The octogenarian Mandelbrot enriches the narrative with historical and cultural backgrounds of places and events, making the first part of the book a personal - but quite broad - overview of the between-the-wars Europe (Eastern Europe and France) and France under occupation.

The same style perseveres through the rest of the book; as we follow Mandelbrot as a student, young and then mature researcher, we learn of the French higher-education system, of the different environments at several US educational institutions, of the atmosphere at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center, of the many remarkable people Mandelbrot met or befriended in pursuit of his career.

Very early in life, Mandelbrot adopted Johannes Kepler as a role model. Kepler was the first to realize that planetary orbits are elliptical rather than circular - a discovery that led him to the three laws of planetary motion that now bear his name. It became Mandelbrot's ambition "to discover something like this". Eventually, he had, too. Over the life span, Mandelbrot has experienced several instants of enlightening insights that he designated as "Kepler moments". These led to major accomplishments in applied linguistics, economics, theory of turbulence, information transmission, and culminated with the discovery of the fractal geometry of nature. Fractals not only supplied a unified foundation to Mandelbrot's exploits in otherwise apparently disparate scientific fields, they fundamentally changed our view on the world we live in.

Benoit Mandelbrot lived a life enviably rich in events, human encounters and fulfilling achievements that coalesce in a fascinating story. His memoir makes it an exciting and edifying reading.

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