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Early computers


IBM's unique position
Benoît Mandelbrot Mathematician
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Before, for one reason or another, one country or another had rules which allowed certain people to function outside of the system. For example, Britain for a long time had a reflection of its class structure which meant that people like, well, J. B. S. Haldane who was the nephew of Lord Haldane, or Bertrand Russell who became Lord Russell, could do what they pleased, and it's interesting to think that Bertrand Russell never had a job, he never had to compete for a job. Haldane had four or five different jobs in his life, totally different. He probably could have - if he had been bothered - have just abandoned his job and went on to live otherwise. Lord Rayleigh of course was the third baron Rayleigh. It's surprising how many of the great scientists of England in the late nineteenth century, early twentieth, were in fact very high aristocrats. Of course that's no longer either possible or do-able or done. In France there was the case of de Broglie, very much in the same style. In America. even though it is much less known, America had a kind of indigenous mathematics, not from the American Indian of course, but from before the refugees from Stalin and from Hitler, and that mathematics was carried on by several bone fide aristocrats. One of my professors, was by chance different, he was Hassler Whitney, who was a Whitney-Whitney, I mean, descended from Eli Whitney, and in that way, a very great family. Another one was a son of the first Chief Justice of United States, Stone. But this no longer exists, IBM no longer exists. I don't see a place now where somebody like myself who combined, let's say, unusual gifts and unusual tastes and, who everybody said has promise, was certainly a misfit of the worst kind could find a position at this point and I think that a tragedy.

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, 17 seconds

Date story recorded: May 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008