Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Fractalist: Memoir of a Scientific Maverick


What an amazing life!

From pre-war Warsaw to France to the United States, it would have made for an interesting tale, even if BenoĆ®t Mandelbrot hadn't gone on to do half of what he did.  Most famous for his work with fractals, he liked to be associated with "roughness" in general; such things as shorelines, mountains, and many other naturally occurring phenomenon.  Importantly, he also was one of the first to explicitly state that the world of finance is not governed by bell curves, where "outlier" events are extremely rare, but rather by a "fat tail" distribution where extreme events are more common than one would suspect.

Somehow, the first part of the book struck me more; as much as his scientific/mathematical accomplishments are what made him famous, some of the stories leading to and during World War II were amazing.  At a certain point, living in Vichy France, his family split up to improve their chances of survival, with him and his brother being on their own for over a year, while still trying to study.

After having recently read Vanished Kingdoms, the details about Lithuania, Poland and Russia were illustrated in a way that the linked book never really brought home at a personal level.  For instance, he talks about visiting a settlement one summer that is reachable only via several trains, and finally, along a muddy road with a horse drawn carriage.

It's interesting to see how many of his contributions came later in life; for someone in math or physics, that's rare.  Also, because he liked to drift from field to field, and not wishing to 'settle down' with one subject, he ended up at IBM doing research, rather than an academic institution.

The writing style is a bit clipped at times, but I like it; it's direct and to the point.

Those like myself who do not use a great deal of math in their lives will also be relieved that, with the exception of the formula for the Mandelbrot set, which is explained step by step, there are no formulas or math in the book.


All in all, I found the book inspiring on several levels, first his survival in extremely uncertain times, as well as his studied eclecticism.

Also, as luck would have it, I finished the book several days ago and am writing this review on what would have been his 88th birthday, on November 20th.

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