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Lyon during the occupation


Drawing; the ability to think in pictures and its continued influence
Benoît Mandelbrot Mathematician
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Another thing happened that was very linked to it. I had absolutely no experience in drawing. There was no temptation. My father was very much interested in painting and I remember very well the first day when we arrived in Paris, after the first weekend, when he found had time to walk take us around Paris, he took us to The Louvre and to the conservatory of Arts and Crafts, which is a museum where they keep old planes, old cars and so on, because he wanted us to know about technology. He was very, very keen on that, and he also wanted to share his love of classical painting, in particular of Titian. But I didn't know that I could draw, but in that preparation for the École Normale and the École Polytechnique, at the time drawing was just part of the programme. It sounded ridiculous because there was no need for it, but again it was tradition. Once upon a time engineers had to be able to draw the state of something happening for their bosses, or, if they're coming to inspect a bridge being built, to draw what was happening. Therefore drawing was an important part of the game, and to train that skill in a kind that could be also subjected to exams, we had - well, the Venus de Milo, the Victory of Samothrace, the head of Voltaire, etc., etc., all kinds of classical and French sculptures to imitate. And I found that I could do it very accurately. It was rather soulless but extremely accurate and extremely careful depiction. All that was part of this complex of skills which again, amazingly enough, I did not know about before, namely the ability to draw, to see things in accurate detail, to see differences between my drawing and the model very accurately, and to think in terms of pictures. I might say that this had been my skill throughout, that in all the very complicated ups and downs of my life the ability to think globally- certain configurations has been predominant. The ability, the willingness, to ask myself questions about what shapes things are, because then I could think about them, had been predominant. In my work in pure mathematics most of it - the parts most exciting for mathematicians - has been parts in which I was asking questions which nobody else had asked before, because nobody else had actually looked at certain structures. Therefore, as I will tell, the advent of the computer, not as a computer but as a drawing machine, was for me a major event in my life. That's why I was motivated to participate in the birth of computer graphics, because for me computer graphics was a way of extending my hand, extending it and being able to draw things which my hand by itself, and the hands of nobody else before, would not have been able to represent.

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: 3 minutes, 28 seconds

Date story recorded: May 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008