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The uses of fractals


Carleton Gajdusek and scientists whose interests span many fields
Benoît Mandelbrot Mathematician
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Another person whom I mentioned briefly, who was a post-doc at Caltech when I was a student is Carleton Gajdusek. He is a medical scientist and explorer and a man of many, many parts. Again, we were both young, we both shared this wild, how should I say, thirst for a variety of intellectual challenge. He went on in very different directions. He was a fearless explorer who could go into a quite unexplored jungle in search of adventure and medical adventures. He became very famous. He received the Nobel Prize in medicine, but always remained a man of very, very many parts, not restricted to one profession, but oscillating between many. I think that the circumstances after World War II were favourable to people like us. That doesn't mean that there were many, but there were a few. At other periods there seem to be none, but the circumstances don't allow this variety to prevail, even under the best circumstances, best conditions. But at IBM during its thirty-five years of high interest in physical and other research showed how many people, potentially, can aim in that direction. Of the many people who came to IBM there were maybe a hundred who had ill-defined goals; most of them of course have dropped out of sight, but after the research division was winding up we all realised with surprise, and for me with great pleasure, that all those who had been most successful in that place were those whose interest spanned strange combinations or fields of investigation, and those who were prepared always to drop an investigation in the middle if something more exciting was coming up and return to the first one later, again and again. This kind of flexibility, it does exist; is manifested by a few individuals at any given time; science does not need many, science probably can't accommodate many, but I very profoundly feel that science at any given time needs at least a few.

Benoît Mandelbrot (1924-2010) discovered his ability to think about mathematics in images while working with the French Resistance during the Second World War, and is famous for his work on fractal geometry - the maths of the shapes found in nature.

Listeners: Bernard Sapoval Daniel Zajdenweber

Bernard Sapoval is Research Director at C.N.R.S. Since 1983 his work has focused on the physics of fractals and irregular systems and structures and properties in general. The main themes are the fractal structure of diffusion fronts, the concept of percolation in a gradient, random walks in a probability gradient as a method to calculate the threshold of percolation in two dimensions, the concept of intercalation and invasion noise, observed, for example, in the absorbance of a liquid in a porous substance, prediction of the fractal dimension of certain corrosion figures, the possibility of increasing sharpness in fuzzy images by a numerical analysis using the concept of percolation in a gradient, calculation of the way a fractal model will respond to external stimulus and the correspondence between the electrochemical response of an irregular electrode and the absorbance of a membrane of the same geometry.

Daniel Zajdenweber is a Professor at the College of Economics, University of Paris.

Duration: 2 minutes, 42 seconds

Date story recorded: May 1998

Date story went live: 29 September 2010