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Influences: should I be an engineer or a mathematician?


Family pressure
Benoît Mandelbrot Mathematician
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Since my parents and my uncle had such a great influence in my life, I would like to add a few words about all three of them. My parents, as I said, had lost a child before I was born. That child was very bright. In a sense, they were hoping with me, ten years later, to correct fate, and they had the most extraordinary faith in what I could do: there was nothing I could not do. This sometimes took actually a rather harsh edge. When I finished high school I received the 'tres bien', which is an A, which was extremely rare at that time. It was reserved for very special cases and was the highest honour. When I told my father coming back home, that everything had gone well, and that I got an A. He said, "Fine. Let's think about the future." It was - somehow this had been "discounted" if you think in terms of the market. It was understood this would happen and so it didn't deserve much emphasis. I remember being disappointed, that somehow it was just so obvious I should do it. And it went on for a very long time. Sometimes I think of them as still pushing me. It's strange, but it is true. My uncle was very different. When he was a very old man and he always kept coming back to what he felt was the way I had disappointed him in the world. I will tell how he wanted me to go to the École Normale and how I left after two days. Over the years he would say, after conversation lagged, I went to see him, "How are your wife or children", then he would say, "Well, you know, I know you hate the question. I keep asking you, but please excuse me. I forget your answer because I don't understand it. Can you tell me why thirty-five years ago you didn't stay at the École Normale?" It was a profound wound for him. I had never, ever realised how deeply shaken he would remain all his life. Then one day, I went to see him and he didn't ask the question, and I felt he was getting towards the end of his life, that he was no longer interested in the world, only in his own ill-health. He felt that I had done everything wrong. He was afraid that I would encounter the most extraordinary disasters because I had done something so profoundly ill-suited. My parents never thought I could do anything wrong. That's the big difference.

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: Daniel Zajdenweber Bernard Sapoval

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

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.

Duration: 3 minutes, 6 seconds

Date story recorded: May 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008