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The Fractalist: Memoir of a Scientific Maverick Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 30, 2012
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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.
“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
Top customer reviews
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.
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.