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48 of 55 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A fractal journey through the mind of Benoit Mandelbrot
"My life", says Benoit Mandelbrot in the introduction to his memoir, "reminds me of that fairy tale in which the hero finds a hitherto unseen thread, and as he unravels the thread it leads him to unimaginable and unknown wonders". Mandelbrot not only found those wonders, but bequeathed to us the thread which will continue to lead us to more wondrous discoveries...
Published on October 30, 2012 by A. Jogalekar

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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Time-travel of the mind
If you are a mathematician or physicist, you are likely to find this book a satisfactory read. If you do not now know what a fractal is, you will be puzzled by this book.

Mandelbrot was without doubt a giant of 20th-century mathematics, but a writer he was not. The book is a fascinating journey through encounters with a who's-who of the century's greatest...
Published 23 months ago by Richard F. Colarco


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48 of 55 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A fractal journey through the mind of Benoit Mandelbrot, October 30, 2012
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This review is from: The Fractalist: Memoir of a Scientific Maverick (Hardcover)
"My life", says Benoit Mandelbrot in the introduction to his memoir, "reminds me of that fairy tale in which the hero finds a hitherto unseen thread, and as he unravels the thread it leads him to unimaginable and unknown wonders". Mandelbrot not only found those wonders, but bequeathed to us the thread which will continue to lead us to more wondrous discoveries.

Mandelbrot was one of those chosen few scientists in history who are generalists, people whose ideas impact a vast landscape of fields. A maverick in the best sense of the term, he even went one step further and created his own field of fractal geometry. In a nutshell, he developed a "theory of roughness", and the fractals which represent this roughness are now household names, even making it into "Jurassic Park". Today fractals are known to manifest themselves in a staggering range of phenomena; the rhythms of the heart, the distribution of galaxies, market fluctuations, the rise and fall of species populations, the shapes of blood vessels, earthquakes, and the weather. Before Mandelbrot scientists liked to deal with smooth averages and equilibria, assuming that the outliers, the "pathologies", the sudden jumps from normalcy were rare and could be ignored. Mandelbrot proved that they can't and found methods to tame them and bring them into the mainstream. His insights into this new view of nature effected minor and major revolutions in fields as diverse as economics, astronomy, physiology and fluid dynamics. More than almost any other thinker he was responsible for teaching natural and social scientists to model the world as it is rather than the abstraction which they want it to be.

In this memoir Mandelbrot describes his immensely eventful and somewhat haphazard journey to these revelations. The volume is quirky, charming, wide-ranging, often lingering on self-similar themes, much like his fractals; gorgeous colored pictures of these are included in the book in the form of plates. The memoir is divided into three parts. The first deals with family history, childhood influences and wartime experiences. The second deals with a peripatetic, broad scientific education. The third details Mandelbrot's great moments of discovery, the ones he calls "Keplerian moments" in homage to the great astronomer who realized the power of abstract mathematical notions to illuminate reality.

Mandelbrot grew up in a Lithuanian family first in Warsaw and then in France. He came from an educated and intellectually alert household. His most formative influences were his garment-maker father and dentist mother and especially his mathematician uncle Szolem. The parents had acquired great reserves of tenacity, having been uprooted from one place to another at least six times because of the depression. Szolem had toured the great centers of European mathematics and knew quite a few famous mathematicians himself. Mandelbrot grew up steeped in the mathematical beauty and folklore which Szolem vividly imparted to him. A dominant theme in the household was self-improvement, constantly challenging oneself to do better. This theme served Benoit well.

Mandelbrot's early years were marked by the rise of Nazism. After the fall of France his family fled Paris, taking refuge in the south of France before the country was liberated. There were dangerous moments, like his father narrowly escaping a strafing and Benoit and his cousin being interrogated by the Vichy police. After the war Mandelbrot studied at the prestigious École Polytechnique. At this point his central character started to reveal itself; an intellectual restless that inspired forays into diverse fields, a thirst for knowledge that would take him to many corners of the globe, a tendency to question orthodox wisdom and most importantly, an unwillingness to be a specialist. All these traits would turn out to be paramount in his future discoveries. Throughout his life Mandelbrot was known as a sometimes cantankerous and difficult person, but while there is a trace of these qualities in his memoir, most of the volume is generous in acknowledging the influence of family, friends, colleagues and institutions. The one thing the memoir lacks is material on his wife and children; what role did they play in his life and work?

His intellectual restlessness led him across the Atlantic to major centers of scientific research including Caltech, MIT and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where he was the last postdoc of the great mathematician John von Neumann. Part of the joy of the book comes from Mandelbrot's accounts of encounters with a veritable who's who of late twentieth century science including von Neumann, Oppenheimer, Wiener, Feynman, Chomsky and Stephen Jay Gould. A particularly memorable incident has him flabbergasted by a penetrating comment from an audience member and Oppenheimer and von Neumann coming to his defense to explain his ideas even better than he could. At all these institutions Mandelbrot worked on a remarkable variety of problems, from aircraft design to linguistics, and acquired a rare, extremely broad education that would serve him in good stead.

As he explains, the trajectory of Mandebrot's life was irrevocably changed when his uncle Szolem introduced him to a law named Zipf's Law that deals with the frequencies of words in various languages. Mandelbrot discovered that Zipf's law led to some counterintuitive and universal results that could only be explained by non-standard distributions; this was when he discovered the high prevalence of what many had previous considered to be "rare" events. His work in this area as well as some preliminary work in economics led him to a highly productive position at IBM. Mandelbrot describes IBM's remarkable scientific culture that allowed scientists like him to pursue unfettered basic scientific research; sadly that culture has now all but vanished in many organizations. During this time he stayed in touch with academia, giving seminars at many leading universities. Ironically, it was Mandelbrot's lack of specialization that made universities reluctant to hire him; implicitly, his experience is also a critique of an academic system that discourages broad thinkers and generalists. The difficulty of pinning down an unconventional thinker like Mandelbrot is reflected in the fact that Chicago found his interests too spread out while Harvard thought them too narrow!

But IBM was more than happy to support his multiple intellectual forays and in addition to his own explorations he also has accounts of IBM's pioneering work in software and graphics design. It was while at IBM that Mandelbrot discovered what he is most famous for - fractals. As the book recounts, the work arose partly from analyzing price and market fluctuations. Mandelbrot was struck by the uncanny similarity of disparate price and income curves and realized that the equilibrium model that economists were relying for decades was of little use in analyzing real world jumps which tended to be much more frequent than normal distributions would indicate. In a set of stunning and sweeping intellectual insights engendered by his broad scientific background, Mandelbrot realized that the math underlying an astonishing range of phenomena, from economic fluctuations to geographic coastlines, is the same. His work in this area was seminal by any standard, but it was not adopted by economists partly because they found it difficult to use and partly because the field was entrenched in established ideas from equilibrium models. It was only in the 1980s that his insights became accepted into the mainstream, and the global recession in 2008 and the shocks to the economy have soundly validated his fractal fluctuation models. Outliers are not so rare after all, and as Nassim Taleb has documented, their impact can be tremendous and unpredictable. The parts of the book charting the road leading to fractals are fascinating and clearly detail the advantage of having a broad scientific background.

In spite of the lukewarm reception by economists Mandelbrot persevered along his general line of thinking, and in the late 1970s he discovered the iconic Mandelbrot set which made him a household name. Starting from an almost laughably simple formula, one quickly generates what has been called the most complex object in mathematics. The stunning geometry of the set today dots everything from murals to coffee mugs and there are hundreds of websites on which you can generate the set and examine it. Zooming in on the picture reveals a thick and endlessly complex jungle of self-similar geometric shapes and convolutions; one can gaze at this mesmerizing creature for hours.

Mandelbrot retired from IBM in the 80s and his career culminated in his appointment as the Sterling professor at Yale University. His eventful journey, from Warsaw to New Haven, holds many key lessons for us. He taught us to celebrate diversity and broad interests in an era of specialization. He shifted the focus of scientists from the idealized experiments of their laboratories to the messy world of reality. And he made it clear that many of the most penetrating insights into nature like fractals emerge from asking simple questions and exploring the obvious; What's the length of Britain's coastline? What's the shape of clouds? How does the heart beat?

It is hard to think of a twentieth century thinker whose ideas have influenced so many disciplines, and the fruits of Mandelbrot's labors promise continuing revelations long after his death in 2010. His memoir makes a resounding case for the virtues of indulging in, in Feynman's words, "perfectly reasonable deviations from the beaten track".
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Wonderful Non-Standard Memoir, November 7, 2012
By 
Jordan Hedberg (Westcliffe, Colorado) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Fractalist: Memoir of a Scientific Maverick (Hardcover)
I came to know Benoit Mandelbrot's work through the writings of Nassim Taleb, little did I know at the time "Mandelbrotian" would play a significant role in changing my life. The day the memoir came out, I finished the entire work and have since reread it again. I lack the words to describe how inspirational Mandelbrot's work is to followers of his fractal geometry, even if they are not professional mathematicians.

For people that have a fear of math - this is a great book. In fact, there is only one equation in the entire book. Instead this memoir gets into the thoughts of one of the 20th century's greatest minds. Mandelbrot constantly avoided structure, smoothness, and the status quo. In essence, his life was rough and that was exactly the way he liked it. Despite living under constant uncertainty, Mandelbrot never complains or worries over the lack of security he faced, frankly, he realized that he thrived under such conditions.

It was refreshing to read a memoir free of over-causation. Often the autobiography of a famous person is filled with causes on how and why they were so successful.. Instead, Mandelbrot writes the major events in his life as best he can remember them (often finding support in pictures or items from his archives) and examines how luck, skill, and perseverance shaped his career. Sometimes choices were made for him, other times he chose an unconventional path on purpose but he never stopped trying to find his "Keplerian" contribution to math. Somehow he grasped at a young age that true discoveries are not gained through climbing the established academic ladder but by tinkering on the verge of such structures.

It is impossible to summarize this book into one review (the sign of a good book) yet there are some themes that have powerful messages for people sick of the archaic hierarchy of academia. If you have a stiff upper lip you can make contributions to the world by not climbing ladders. Working outside of established structure is the true mother of invention. Mandelbrot described himself as a "maverick" which I find as a very apt description of his personality; He did not rebel completely from mathematics yet he rarely paid heed to tenured professors. He jumped between many "established" fields such as economics and contributed significant amounts of material to those willing to listen. His maverick lifestyle helped more people than if he had settled for a "secure" professorship in Paris.

In closing, I have a hard time writing this review because the memoir does not fit into a standard style of writing; that is why I enjoyed the book. I encourage everyone to read it, if you are a follower of Mandelbrot than I am sure it will be a wonderful experience. If you have never read Mandelbrot or understand the nature of some of his work than I encourage you to read the memoir but keep an open mind and use the book as a starting point to his other works. The world was blessed to have such a bright mind, and hopefully other mavericks have been created by following his example.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Time-travel of the mind, January 24, 2013
This review is from: The Fractalist: Memoir of a Scientific Maverick (Hardcover)
If you are a mathematician or physicist, you are likely to find this book a satisfactory read. If you do not now know what a fractal is, you will be puzzled by this book.

Mandelbrot was without doubt a giant of 20th-century mathematics, but a writer he was not. The book is a fascinating journey through encounters with a who's-who of the century's greatest mathematicians. However, the book lacks continuity and linearity. The narrative jumps about in time incessantly and annoyingly.

The book is by Mandelbrot, about Mandelbrot. He praises others for their effects upon him, but it's hard to follow the thread. His family (except for his eccentric and brilliant father and uncle) gets short shrift. His life (if any) outside mathematics remains a mystery.

The book cries out for organization. It is filled with fascinating anecdotes, but at the end it is a list of ingredients that has not quite turned into a meal.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The nerd did it his way, November 11, 2012
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This review is from: The Fractalist: Memoir of a Scientific Maverick (Hardcover)
Like Sinatra, he did it his way. He crossed disciplines searching for a theory of roughness, sought after since antiquity, and he found it at age 55, in the Mandelbrot set, when most scientists, mathematicians, so on, have seen their best work done and gone. Hopping and skipping over the hot coals of academic demands that he stick to one subject, he chose to let his mind go where it would. Mandelbrot's memoir clears a bit of brush for the next maverick whether he or she be in geometry, molecular biology, or in any future, yet unrecognized discipline. "The Fractalist" is written with a youthful mind, looking forward, always.

Mandelbrot, inventor of fractal geometry, in his own words, perhaps lightly edited, wanted to tell an upcoming generation about the journey of an "outlier", who wanted to say that the rules can be broken, that a life of the mind is preferable in some to wealth, and that the pinnacle of success is reachable climbing this not often taken path.

The wild state: Mandelbrot tells us through a life story that education is no longer about who is worthy enough, as it was often in 1940's France when he came out of hiding after the war to prepare for entrance exams in a few month's time. It is about who is curious enough, whose mind is in one of the three states of risk and randomness, "mild, slow, or wild." Benoit Mandelbrot's mind was definitely in the "wild" state, full of heat and passion for connecting novel ideas.

Benoit Mandelbrot's writing charms, it wanders off, it shows that it's difficult even for a genius to write a coherent memoir, but don't let that stop you. The book has only one formula in it, and major concepts peppered throughout it, in introductory form mostly. It is only one book about a vast personality surviving turbulent historical times, so if you want to go deeper, you will want to read other Mandelbrot books, like "The Misbehavior of Markets: A Fractal View of Financial Turbulence" published in 2007, three years before his death in 2010.

The early part of his book tells us about childhood Jewry during an uncertain Nazi world where risk was in every small decision like his father leaving fellow escapees on the main road where there was safety in numbers, to follow a path through the woods, a decision that saved him from the airplane strafing, where all the escaping prisoners were shot to death, except him. Or the decision to break the family apart sending the sons to work in metal making and on farms, and leaving the parents behind. Small life saving decisions that minimized risks for Mandelbrot's family changed how he thought about the size of risks, and later might have influenced how small unrecognized risks are really large risks for the stock market portending the recent crash.

At a time when the centralization of knowledge in universities and education in general is crumbling and at the same time growing with online education from the likes of Coursera, Edx, and Udacity, his memoir is prescient. His memoir is a testament that knowledge has no edges, it is a whole, not pieces of non-related errata.

As I read I recognized the many, many areas his work affects us personally, on a day to day basis. I'd like to list those but I got so caught up reading the book that I stopped making notes.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not what I had hoped, January 6, 2013
This review is from: The Fractalist: Memoir of a Scientific Maverick (Hardcover)
I had expected to learn something about Mandelbrot's work and about fractals as a lay person. Instead, I learned about Mandelbrot's life from his own egotistical point of view. Although it was somewhat interesting, I came to dislike the solipsistic style. Although there were the usual pretty pictures derived from the Mandelbrot set, I have no greater understanding of either the math behind the set or the value of his work to the many fields he claims to have contributed to.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars An egotist's limp memoir, September 1, 2013
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This review is from: The Fractalist: Memoir of a Scientific Maverick (Hardcover)
"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. They are all fractal."- this quote is said to be the most famous line written by Benoit Mandelbrot,the father of fractal geometry. Would that his memoir was so poetically engaging as this quote. Instead we are asked to endure a poorly written over inflated self-homage with too little information about the field of fractal geometry. His endless and mostly pointless name-dropping is tedious and rarely insightful. Some of his judgements about famous individuals are severely myopic and lack any sense of perspective-Carleton Gajdusek and Charles de Gaulle are two of the most egregious examples. To describe Isiah Berlin as a man of action" might be considered quixotic if it didn't demean his considerable intellectual capabilities and accomplishments.
We must read and retread how gifted the author is- undoubtedly, a statement of fact, but the smugness of author wears thin long before the more interesting final chapters about his groundbreaking mathematical career. That Mandelbrot's contributions were noteworthy cannot be denied. However, this memoir does not serve him well. It will not bring him new admirers and will be more than a little off-putting to those that already are aware of his creation of fractal geometry.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A view into the personal history of Mandelbrot rather than the technical, January 7, 2013
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This review is from: The Fractalist: Memoir of a Scientific Maverick (Hardcover)
The Fractalist is the autobiography of Benoit Mandelbrot. Mandelbrot was a remarkable scientist who was a pioneer in bringing fractal ideas from obscurity to the forefront. His ideas are used in a wide range of subjects with further applications being discovered all the time. The Fractalist is the narrative of his life, his influences and the path he followed to take him through his life.

The Fractalist is largely chronological starting out in his childhood and the influences from his family and early life in Europe. It contains many details of the author's life but it doesnt particularly flow in a fashion that makes it very enjoyable to read. There are lots of specific details on characters who neither influence the author, nor reappear. Often it seems like the early part is a collection of memory fragments being reconstructed rather than a part of the greater whole he is trying to create. Nonetheless the reader does get a true view of the author's early history.

Mandelbrot then discusses his academic career and his success in France as well as the graduate work in the US. He discusses his interests and influences and one starts to get a firmer picture of how the authors wide variety of interests drove his eclectic mathematical investigations. The professional years at IBM and the differences between economics and math department cultures is all very interesting. The author's history and difficulty in finding an academic "home" definitely gives an insight into how academic culture can be quite different from a professional culture like that of IBM.

All in all if one is interested in a detail filled history of the author's life with a focus on influences and anecdotes then this is going to be the best source of information. If one is looking for a more detailed view of the author's works then this is not it. The writing I found to be a bit hard to get through at times as many things dont flow well, but the information is there for those who want to get it.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting person., September 4, 2014
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I waited a long time to get a copy of this, because it is a subject that really interests me. Local libraries don't have it, so when the price dropped for the Kindle version, I ordered it. It is interesting as a biography, but I didn't understand any of the math in the later part of the book, and what I really wanted was an explanation I could understand of fractals. So a good read, but not particularly educational.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating read, February 8, 2014
By 
Laima V. Rastenis (Chicago, IL United States) - See all my reviews
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Fascinating book. A look into the mind of a great thinker. Inspiring. A wonderful introduction into fractal geometry and it's applications.
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Worth a try if you're interested in biographies of scientists and dynamical systems (chaos and complexity) theory., December 20, 2012
By 
Karen VanderVen (Pittsburgh, PA USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Fractalist: Memoir of a Scientific Maverick (Hardcover)
I have been interested in the concept of fractals for years and knew of Mandelbrot's work in founding it. The work itself of course is brilliant. The book less so, although the biographical aspects were still engaging. Here and there I'd have liked more detail - about fractals themselves and Mandelbrot's family.
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The Fractalist: Memoir of a Scientific Maverick
The Fractalist: Memoir of a Scientific Maverick by Benoit Mandelbrot (Hardcover - October 30, 2012)
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