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Leaving Caltech; crisis over future


Contact with biologists at Caltech
Benoît Mandelbrot Mathematician
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Well it was one of those purely social accidents. In '48, a person who later became Deputy Director of the Pasteur Institute, came as a post-doctorate researcher to Caltech. He was French, I was French, so a mutual friend introduced us. And then those people very much disliked the apartment that Caltech had found for them, and I knew that there was an apartment vacant next door to where I lived, and my landlady asked me, "Do you know somebody nice to go there?" So I introduced those Frenchmen to my landlady, and therefore became neighbours. Therefore we saw each other very often. That was kind of superficial, but I went, I was invited to a few of Delbruck's parties and it was quite clear that this thing which I was dreaming of was happening; that this man who had this extraordinarily strong knowledge of quantum theory - he was later, well not a greatly significant contributor to quantum theory- had a pure command of anything he wanted, he could learn the mathematics he needed any time, had decided to go all the way to a very soft subject, but to tried to take it by the path which could be the hardest, namely molecular biology, which he in a way introduced, invented, discovered, whatever you want to call it. Now his post-doc's were an extraordinary crowd. I mean a large proportion of my friends, life friends, are from that period. Some of them include the most brilliant man I ever met, who is Carlton Gajdusek; I may speak about him a bit later. They're simply of a very high calibre, and of course I wondered should I go into biology? That was too far, it was too removed, I was probably too engaged and somehow also I would have been too late. I had this feeling that the moment of greatest tension was already past, and Delbruck and his first post-doc's had done it. I was wrong, of course, because it lasted for several more years.

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, 20 seconds

Date story recorded: May 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008