on 23 June 2014
I had obviously heard of the Mandelbrot set etc. etc., but knew nothing of the man, but what a truly fascinating and by the sounds of him lovely man.
brilliantly written with enough humility and introspection while being comfortable to talk about how fundamentally important and central he was to finding his "Kepler Moment"
Not the quickest read, and some technical stuff that might go over some folks heads but skipping over it does not dilute the narrative of the book at all.
Would highly recommend this as a bio of someone a bit left field in the world of z-list celeb bios at 10 a penny.
Highlights: passage about the invention of Passwords for computers and his part in the need for them
: the “contaminated by cats” observatory story
Quote “but not for a moment did I forget that to remain stable and vertical a bicycle must move sufficiently fast”
on 22 January 2013
Benoit Mandelbrot (of "Mandelbrot set" fame) gives a thorough and interesting account of his life from beginning to end, sadly passing away before final copy-edits could be made. I came into this book having read The Misbehaviour of Markets and thought of Mandelbrot as something of a 'one-trick pony', but nevertheless an interesting character. Having read this book I can say I was entirely wrong, and the fact that his new field of studying fractals has found a home in so many disparate disciplines is a testament to his genius in developing it.
The start of the book took me by surprise in detailing family members and his early life. In fact it's not until around half-way through that Mandelbrot receives his PhD! Still, this early life clearly impacted his later career, and it's uncomfortable reading when he mentions the Jewish family and friends that were just "never seen again" after World War II. He also goes into great detail about early meetings with his Uncle's famous mathematician friends which inspired his future career. Throughout the book there are famous names aplenty: John von Neumann ("Jonny" to Mandelbrot!); Paul Levy, Kolmogorov, Neils Bohr, Einstein... too many to list, and with each dropped name he supplies a short but often fascinating insight into their personality. Although the writing is terse and near-scientific at times (though never any equations or hard math), Mandelbrot easily gets across his love of IBM Research and their idealistic mandate for free thinking basic science, which he was obviously sad to see shut down. One of the most touching parts of the memoir came near the end, when Mandelbrot recalls a student approaching him with questions and praise after a lecture near the end of his life - you'd be forgiven, after reaching this far in the book, for thinking Mandelbrot was not a modest man, but this short paragraph showed his down-to-earth humanity: he loved being a popular speaker and having the ability to inspire young minds.
A minor annoyance for me was the overuse of the phrase "Keplerian dream", but in the end I realised it just emphasises the connection Mandelbrot tried so hard to make with Kepler's field-changing insight - which he of course did. Ultimately this book was a great read, which paints a picture of a unique scientific mind who almost single-handedly built a new area of research, all the while flitting between fields and insitutions with reckless abandon - a true scientific maverick.
on 17 January 2014
It has been a pleasure to follow Mandelbrot's, 1924-2010, formation as a mathematician through the influence of his uncle and of French and American mathematicians until he anchored 1958 at IBM, Yorktown, for 35 years as a research scientist and at the same time as Sterling professor at Yale 1987-2004.
On the way the reader learns how French mathematicians were recruited - by marriage - and seniors live again the punching of cards for a computer hardly to be found. Already on p.69f Mandelbrot confesses that "throughout his life an inner voice has restated in geometry the problems of algebra and analytic geometry". His French friends and good angels who let him survive 1940-44 in Vichy-France told him later that they tried in vain to find problems that could not be restated that way. He became a student at École polytechnique and at Carva, and later at Caltech ,Harvard and MIT. Most striking is Mandelbrot's definition of "broken dimensions", called "fractals" (Ann.NYAS 1980;357:249-259) iterating xn2+C --> xn+1. The relations to music(p.294) were processed with Ligeti and Wuorinen, but the Chaos 1. movement of Joseph Haydn's "Die Schöpfung" (Creation) where the final 26 bars have the cycle of fifths as an attractor, is not mentioned, and neither is one of Goethe's "Zahme Xenien",1815, used 1917 as a motto by Spengler:
Wenn in Unendlichen das Selbe -------(When to infinity the same)
Sich wiederholend ewig fliesst ------(repeatedly forever flows)
Das tausendfältige Gewölbe ----------(the thousandfold vaults)
sich kräftig in einander schliesst. -(strongly fit themselves.)
Knud Siboni, M.D:, D.Med.Sci. professor emeritus of clinical microbiology. Odense University Hospital, DK 5000 Odense