Memoir of a Scientific Maverick
By Benoit Mandelbrot
(Pantheon, Hardcover, 9780307377357, 352pp.)
Publication Date: October 30, 2012
Other Editions of This Title: Paperback
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A fascinating memoir from the man who revitalized visual geometry, and whose ideas about fractals have changed how we look at both the natural world and the financial world.
Benoit Mandelbrot, the creator of fractal geometry, has significantly improved our understanding of, among other things, financial variability and erratic physical phenomena. In The Fractalist, Mandelbrot recounts the high points of his life with exuberance and an eloquent fluency, deepening our understanding of the evolution of his extraordinary mind. We begin with his early years: born in Warsaw in 1924 to a Lithuanian Jewish family, Mandelbrot moved with his family to Paris in the 1930s, where he was mentored by an eminent mathematician uncle. During World War II, as he stayed barely one step ahead of the Nazis until France was liberated, he studied geometry on his own and dreamed of using it to solve fresh, real-world problems. We observe his unusually broad education in Europe, and later at Caltech, Princeton, and MIT. We learn about his thirty-five-year affiliation with IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center and his association with Harvard and Yale. An outsider to mainstream scientific research, he managed to do what others had thought impossible: develop a new geometry that combines revelatory beauty with a radical way of unfolding formerly hidden laws governing utter roughness, turbulence, and chaos.
Here is a remarkable story of both the man’s life and his unparalleled contributions to science, mathematics, and the arts.
A graduate of the École Polytechnique, Benoit Mandelbrot obtained his doctorate from the University of Paris and spent more than thirty-five years at IBM as a research scientist. Best known as the father of fractal geometry, he transformed our understanding of information theory, economics, fluid turbulence, nonlinear dynamics, and geophysics. He died on October 14, 2010.
“This is a wonderful memoir. It is personal, occasionally opinionated, at times beautifully written, and with a narrative encompassing a wide range of times, places, and people.” –Mark McCartney, London Mathematical Society
“Mandelbrot changed the way we look at a wide range of random phenomena from commodity prices to the shapes of mountains, rivers, and coastlines…The memoir captures the enthusiasm as well as the memories of a visionary who loved nothing better than studying complex multidisciplinary concepts.” –Publishers Weekly
“‘When I find myself in the company of scientists,’ W. H. Auden wrote, ‘I feel like a shabby curate who has strayed by mistake into a drawing room full of dukes.’ Benoit B. Mandelbrot (1924-2010) had the kind of beautiful, buzzing mind that made even gifted fellow scientists feel shabby around the edges…The Fractalist evokes the kinds of deceptively simple questions Mandelbrot asked—‘What shape is a mountain, a coastline, a river or a dividing line between two river watersheds?’—and the profound answers he supplied.” –Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“Memoir of a brilliant mathematician who never thought of himself as a mathematician…charmingly written.” –Kirkus
“Benoit Mandelbrot was the one who let us appreciate chaos in all its glory—the noisy, the wayward, and the freakish, from the very small to the very large. He invented a new and slightly nebulous field of study—a kind of geometry, for want of a better description—and he invented that recondite name for it, fractal.
“Clouds are not spheres—the most famous sentence he ever wrote—mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line.
“They are all fractal. Clouds, mountains, coastlines, bark, and lightning: jagged and discontinuous, they are shapes that branch out or fold in upon themselves recursively.
“He found relevant mathematics in some old and freakish ideas—‘monsters,’ as he said, ‘mathematical pathologies’ that had been relegated to the fringes.
“‘I started looking in the trash cans of science for such phenomena,’ he said, and he meant this literally: one scrap he grabbed from a mathematician’s wastebasket to read on the Paris subway inspired an important 1965 paper, ‘Information Theory and Psycholinguistics.’ Information theory led to fractals when he took a close look at the problem of noise in communications lines. There was always noise, and on average it seemed manageable, but analysis revealed that normal bell-curve averages didn’t apply.
“It was the same with brainwaves, fluid turbulence, seismic tremors, and—oh, yes—finance.
“But he was not really an economist, or a physiologist, or a physicist, or an engineer.
“‘Very often when I listen to the list of my previous jobs, I wonder if I exist,’ he said once. ‘The intersection of such sets is surely empty.’”
—James Gleick, author of The Information
“The Fractalist is a well-written tale of a scientific life, complete with first-person accounts of a surprising range of scientific greats.” –Stephen Wolfram, The Wall Street Journal