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Contact with biologists at Caltech


Benoît Mandelbrot Mathematician
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I would say the more important event was quite outside of my life's work, the arrival of Max Delbruck. Now Max Delbruck was, I think, one of the great personalities of those times. He was a physicist by training, a man belonging to one of the very highest families in Prussia, in many ways a great liberal, in many ways a great authoritarian. Max Delbruck had been told in the '30s, according to rumour, that he was just not good enough to be doing physics as well as he hoped; that while Bethe would spend a few hours and write seventeen pages of flawless mathematics, and Weisskopf wrote only fifteen, but equally flawless - and Pauli always preferred Bethe to Weisskopf because of this difference - well, Delbruck only wrote five and there were bugs to fix. He was not up to this competition, which he was finding himself in. But he had branched into biology, the first physicist (to do so). Schrödinger had written about him in his book What Is Life? Delbruck had suddenly become a challenge. And the challenge was met by an equally remarkable man named Beadle who was a farmer from Nebraska who had gone to university to learn more about corn to improve the yield of his farm and moved on, and by that time had become the chairman of the Biology division at Caltech. Beadle was a very bold person. He hired Delbruck, who knew no biology, and told him, "You go and learn biology by teaching Biology One to freshmen, and then go on and do your thing," - which was to introduce quantum mechanics ideas into biology. Now, I never knew what they were doing. They were very - I wouldn't say secretive, they were just a little elusive. They never said what they were doing. Well it was clear they were doing something extraordinarily exciting which for me was again this very strong hope of bringing hard mathematical or physical thinking to a field, which had been very soft before.

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, 28 seconds

Date story recorded: May 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008