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The decision to go to Caltech: Braue and Von Karman


École Polytechnique
Benoît Mandelbrot Mathematician
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École Polytechnique was notable for the variety of its courses. The course in mechanics was in a certain sense a masterpiece, in other senses rather peculiar. But the fact was that so many different fields, which in fact made no sense to give to students, were being presented - I say, "made no sense" because most students were mostly worried about the ranking. The ranking changed life. If you are number five you went into one civil service; if you're number six you go to a different one; if you're number twenty-one, your life was different from that of number twenty-two. So most students had no choice but to become extraordinarily focused. And there again the good thing at the École Polytechnique for me was due to a certain Catch-22. To be a regular student had to be a civil servant, and a French citizen for five years, which I was not, well, A had to follow B and B had to follow A. Now, I was very naive on these matters, and the École Polytechnique was very ill informed, so it told me that that was life and I could not do any differently. In fact, had I been well-informed I would have asked someone in the Council of State to review the conditions of my admission and so on, and they would have decided almost certainly to have me become a regular student. That would have been a tremendous change in my life, perhaps a catastrophe, because that would have put me in a position of having to model myself around a certain profession, a very well defined one. But I didn't have to do so and therefore in the École Polytechnique I was at the same time viewed by everybody as being on top of the class, but in fact free from the constraints of having to prove myself on every exam. I could - well, chemistry was pretty awful, I just did not study chemistry; but other fields were very exciting. I studied them in great detail. I even read all the appendices, of which there were just hundreds of pages accumulated over the years. So all in all, the École Polytechnique was a very good - I wouldn't say training for me, but the kind of circumstances in which I could- well- seek my role in life, and hope it will come soon.

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: 2 minutes, 34 seconds

Date story recorded: May 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008