Guest Reviewer: Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable and Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, has devoted his life to problems of uncertainty, probability, and knowledge. He spent nearly two decades as a businessman and quantitative trader before becoming a full-time philosophical essayist and academic researcher in 2006. Although he spends most of his time in the intense seclusion of his study, or as a flâneur meditating in cafés, he is currently Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering at New York University’s Polytechnic Institute. His main subject matter is "decision making under opacity", that is, a map and a protocol on how we should live in a world we don't understand. Taleb's books have been published in thirty-three languages.
"I have never done anything like others", Mandelbrot once said. And indeed these memoirs show it. He really managed to do everything on his own terms. Everything. It was not easy for him, but he end up doing it as he wanted it.
Consider his huge insight about the world around us. "Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line", wrote Benoit Mandelbrot, contradicting more than 2000 years of misconceptions. Triangles, squares, and circles seem to exist in our textbooks more than reality—and we didn't notice it. Thus was born fractal geometry, a general theory of "roughness". Mandelbrot uncovered simple rules used by nature (and men) that, thanks to repetition, by smaller parts that resemble the whole, generate these seemingly complex and chaotic patterns.
Self-taught and fiercely independent, he thought in images and passed the entrance exam of the top school of mathematics without solving equations; he was both precocious and a late bloomer producing the famous "Mandelbrot set" when he was in his fifties and got tenure at Yale when he was 75. Older mathematicians have resisted his geometric and intuitive method—but the top prize in mathematics was recently given for solving one of his sub-conjectures.
Mandelbrot, while a bit of a loner, had perhaps more cumulative influence than any other single scientist in history, with the only close second Isaac Newton. His contributions affected physics, engineering, arts, medicine (our vessels, lungs, and brains are fractal), biology, etc. But he was unheeded by the very field he started in, economics, where he proved in the 1960s that financial theories vastly underestimate market risk and need total revamping—in spite of the current crisis.
I met him when he was in his late seventies, as he was writing these memoirs long hand. He was the only teacher I ever had, the only person for whom I have had intellectual respect. But there was something else that made him magnetic: he was a raconteur with a profound sense of historical context ... Reading these memoirs put me back in the unusual atmosphere he created around him. The reader is made to feel he are at the center of twentieth century science as it was produced with fields invented almost from scratch: Max Delbrück with molecular biology, Paul Lévy with the mathematics of probability, Robert Oppenheimer with nuclear physics, even Jean Piaget the psychologist for whom Mandelbrot worked as a scientific assistant. And many more.
Finally, the reader will be presented with something that no longer exists in intellectual life: force of character and independence. Enjoy the book.
“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