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Caltech

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The decision to go to Caltech: Braue and Von Karman
Benoît Mandelbrot Mathematician
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At the end of the École Polytechnique I became fairly close to a Professor of Applied Mathematics who was a very high official in the French Navy. He was a Navy Engineers Admiral. His name was Braue. I was looking for some activity, which would be highly mathematical, since I was good at it and at the same time very much hands-on. And everybody was telling me that I was absolutely naive, that I had to grow up, and in fact my uncle was scornful. When I told him that, he said, "What do you want in life?" I said, "Well, look, I would like to find a field, however unimportant, but one in which somehow no scientific mathematically demanding thinking can be applied, and do it myself." Well, he kept saying that I was dreaming of being a Galileo or a Kepler and that had been done before, long before, and now these roles didn't exist and I should decide upon a field. But I couldn't decide. Now, Braue recommended that I go to Caltech and work with Von Karman. Now, why Caltech? Why Von Karman and who was Von Karman? Von Karman, by then a rather old man, was a Hungarian who had received his Ph.D. around 1892 and in the '20s and the '30s he became a pioneer of fluid mechanics and aeronautics. During the war he had an extraordinarily involved role in rocket building and in the aeronautics side of the war in general. The most extraordinary quality that Braue thought Karman possessed was his ability to either know the mathematics or to find the man who knew the mathematics necessary for a topic, and of being close to the real problems. He didn't have to be told what had to be done: he knew that by experience, by intuition, by the generals he spoke to. My father was delighted and as a matter of fact, a year before, my brother who had received a place at the École Polytechnique did not go there, and instead went straight to the School of Aeronautics, because again my cousin, Magar, was telling us that the École Polytechnique was going to die and was not worthy to enter. Why did my father favour aeronautics so much, both for my brother and myself? I think the reason is very simple. I learned later by reading the life stories of Von Neumann and Wigner that they were twenty-five years older. After World War I, their parents wanted them to study chemistry, chemical engineering. Chemical engineering was felt to have won World War I with munitions, gases and aeronautics together with nuclear power was perceived as having won World War II. My father also felt that aeronautics was a field that everybody needed because everybody needed airplanes and it was a very advanced and still, again, international profession. So I went to Caltech, on Braue's recommendation to Karman, and the next stage of my life began.

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: 3 minutes, 35 seconds

Date story recorded: May 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008