The fractalist. Memoir of a scientific maverick

This is the autobiography of Benoit Mandelbrot (1929-2010) who died shortly before the manuscript went to the publisher. So there was some editing by friends and colleagues before it was finally published with Pantheon Books in 2012. This edition is a soft cover reprint of the same book.

Benoit Mandelbrot was born in Warsaw in a Lithuanian Jewish family. His uncle Szolem Mandelbrojt, an influential mathematician, student of Hadamard and member of Bourbaki, helped them escape to Paris in 1936. The family was scattered during WW II in different parts of France, but they all survived. Benoit passed entrance exams for the prestigious École Normale Supérieure but left after two days to choose for the military regime of the École Polytechnique instead, much to the dislike of his uncle. This illustrates the rebellious character of Benoit, always avoiding the well established, predictable and paved road. Among his teachers at the Polytechnique were Paul Lévy and Gaston Julia.

Already as a child, Benoit was fascinated by Kepler because he could resolve anomalies in the solar system by attributing elliptical trajectories to the planets. Benoit always wanted to realize a similar achievement in his life, which, in his conviction, this was only possible by leaving the predefined paths of science. Order in chaos can not be obtained by adding modifications and exceptions to existing models. In the period 1947-49 he studied at Caltech where he witnessed the birth of molecular biology which later has culminated in the discovery of the DNA double helix. This enforced his belief in his Keplerian dream.

After an hilarious intermezzo of a year he had to spent in the French Air Force for bureaucratic reasons, Benoit registered at the Université de Paris. He presented a hastily written thesis in which he elaborated what is now called the Zipf-Mandelbrot law of word frequencies. This is a distribution of sharp decrease but with a long tail. After that he left again for the US to spend postdoc positions at MIT (with Norbert Wiener), Princeton (with John von Neumann) and returned to Paris in 1954 to rejoin the CNRS. He met his wife in that period. They married and spent a two year honeymoon in Genève where he worked at the university. Back in France he got a teaching position in Lille. However, restless as he was, instead of choosing for a tenure position in France, he chose in 1958 to work for IBM in Yorktown Heights.

This move to IBM starts the third part of this autobiography where he develops into the fractalist that we know. First by modelling stock prices, later he promoted fractal behaviour of the Nile Basin and the fractal distribution of galaxies. None of his work was well received by the economic and scientific establishment, not being embedded in pure traditional mathematics or statistics. When in 1979-80 the Mandelbrot set occurred in his lectures and after his first book Les object fractales (1975) but even more so after publishing in 1982 his book The fractal geometry of nature, his Kepler dream finally came true.

This story is written down with the skills of a great story-teller. Mandelbrot exposes himself as a scientific loner, rebel without a cause, and outlier par excellence, There was an obvious mismatch between him and the academia. Either he himself or the institute had to decline a university position at several occasions and he got tenure at Yale only at the very end of his career. He often questions himself whether he has taken the right decisions, but he never regrets, although he thinks that some good advise might have given a different turn to his life. So he never had a formal teacher, nor had he formal students. His low opinion of exam ratings, of persons, events or institutions, are not hidden, and his own achievements are told without the inhibition of false modesty. A very well documented story of a scientific maverick indeed featuring many of the `big shots' he has met, from J.R. Oppenheimer to Victoria de los Angeles to Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. Whether this is an example to be followed is left to the reader, but Mandelbrot seems to be convinced that he has made the proper choices all along the way.

A. Bultheel
KU Leuven
Book details

This is a soft cover edition of the autobiography of Benoit Mandelbrot. He exposes himself as a rebel against established mathematics, which turned him into a fiercely independent scientist, but it also brought him to develop the theory of fractals that properly model many natural phenomena. The recognition of the richness of the Mandelbrot set has eventually given him, relatively late in life, the recognition he has been looking for since he was a child.

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978-0-307-38991-6 (pbk)
18.95 USD (pbk)