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Move to Geneva to work with Jean Piaget


A touching gesture by Von Neumann
Benoît Mandelbrot Mathematician
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Maybe I will also make a little detour to the future, a long distant future. Many, many years later I was in a position where my manager at IBM and I were, well, not friends, in fact, quite hostile to each other. He was disapproving of everything I did, and though they never fired anybody they could ask me to do things that I would certainly not want to do and make it clear they didn't like me, and I saw the writing on the wall. Two small children. I was very afraid of having to look for another job in a hurry. So I went to New York to visit a person whom I'd known before and ask him - he was the President or Vice President of a major foundation " whether, in case of real trouble, he would give me a fellowship to give me time to find a good job. He said, "I was expecting your visit. Von Neumann before he died, chatting about the future, said, 'Keep an eye on Mandelbrot. He is doing something that might become very important, but is very risky. He may really sink. If he's in trouble, please help him.' I promised him; I would deliver. However, please make up with your boss, because I have very little money. If I give money to you I won't be able to give money to somebody else." As it turned out, things settled very well. A new manager came in who was a very close friend and I didn't have to get this fellowship. But I was very moved; I mean, it's very moving that this man - who was not precisely a warm person, he looked like an international banker; his family was in banking; he was a very rich man; he had been extraordinarily successful - that he was sufficiently interested both in my work and in my plight to think about it. But all told I would say I was adding layers and layers of work and solving problems that nobody had been thinking were interesting. I was creating a philosophy of research which later proved very effective; in fact writing papers with long appendices of no particular relevance but which happened to be extremely useful thirty years later. But these things were not necessarily adding up in terms of a career, I would say.

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, 44 seconds

Date story recorded: May 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008