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A touching gesture by Von Neumann


A lecture for Von Neumann and Oppenheimer
Benoît Mandelbrot Mathematician
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So this year at Princeton was again one of great fruitfulness, and perhaps I could tell a story which in fact involves Von Neumann and Oppenheimer in some fashion, which was very characteristic of the way in which I was being perceived, and also of the difficulties I was having in finding a place for myself in the world, and that difficulty didn't cease for many years. I met Oppenheimer now and then, and then saw him in a train from Princeton to New York. We chatted. He asked me what I was doing, and I explained to him what I was doing. He became extraordinarily excited. He said, "It's fantastic. It's extraordinary, that you could have found a way of applying, genuinely thinking of applying thermodynamics to something so different, and that you find everything will be decided upon analytic properties like partition function," and of course he understood instantly. And he asked me to give a lecture, and he said, "Make it a lecture in the evening, for the historians and the ladies." Those were his words. "Make it easy." So one evening, which was fixed with his secretary, I came up and I was expecting to find "historians and ladies." To my surprise, Oppenheimer was there. I tried to block his way, and he went, "No, I'm very much interested.' And then Von Neumann came. I said, "You know my story completely. I didn't prepare a lecture for you." "Well," he says, "perhaps not, but I'm the chairman and the discussion may be interesting." Now, the lecture was, again, to explain to this group that the kind of thinking represented by thermodynamics, as Tolman had made me understand it, could be applied outside and that in a way the abyss between, how to say, humanities and sciences was something you could bridge. That was Oppenheimer's idea, or something like it. Well, I saw all these great men and their spouses arriving, and my heart sank to my heels. I became totally incoherent. I had prepared a very simplified lecture, which I could not do at that age - I could do it now, perhaps, but not then. I tried to change it into a lecture for them. They started falling asleep and snoring. It was a horrible sight. I stopped after forty-five minutes saying, "Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your attention," etc., etc. Mild applause. Von Neumann stands up and says, "Any questions?" Dead silence. Then a friend asked a question. "Any other question?" Dead silence. Another friend asked a question. And when Von Neumann was about to close the lecture, somebody named Otto E Neugebauer stands up in the last row and says, "I have, not a question, but a statement. This is the worst lecture I have attended in my life. I have not understood one word the speaker said. I don't see any relation with the title," and he went on like that, until Oppenheimer stopped him. "Otto, Otto. Please, let me respond, if Dr Mandelbrot would be so kind as to allow me to respond instead for him. The title is very unfortunate. I gave it to my secretary. Dr Mandelbrot should have changed it to be more appropriate. As to the content, well, it may well be that he didn't make justice to his own work, but I believe I understand his every word, and he has a point." Now he went on into the celebrated Oppenheimer lecture. In fact he was the fear of any lecturer in physics - after he had struggled for an hour explaining things, Oppenheimer would stand up and say, "Well, if I understand correctly, this is what you said." In ten minutes he would speak flawlessly - finished sentences and everything! At that time everybody woke up. They said, "That miserable lecturer, he was trying to say these things!" Well, then when he sat down, Von Neumann stood up and said, "Well, I too have some comments to make about Dr Mandelbrot's lecture. We've had a number of interesting discussions and it may well be that he didn't do much justice to his work." Well, it was an abominable lecture, and he went on in his style which was very different, explaining what he saw in my work and why it was interesting, why this and that. Well, needless to say, I was taken in time by my friends to the only place in Princeton that served beer at that time. Next day I went to see to Neumenbour, when I entered he said, "Oh, I'm very sorry. I made a fool of myself yesterday. Please excuse me," etc., etc. (I replied) "No, I am coming to thank you. It was you, in a way, that started the real lecture." Well, so you see what was happening was that Von Neumann - and Oppenheimer, I think- understood what I was trying to do, and Von Neumann wanted to encourage me very strongly.

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: 5 minutes, 16 seconds

Date story recorded: May 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008