Memoir of a brilliant mathematician who never thought of himself as a mathematician.
Part of the reason is that Mandelbrot’s work had wide-ranging impact; as his best-known book, The Fractal Geometry of Nature (1982) illustrates, his insights apply across many disciplines. That breadth of interest originated in Mandelbrot’s early years, growing up in a Jewish family that managed to dodge the currents of anti-Semitism, moving from Lithuania to Poland to France, where the author spent the World War II years in a provincial town, away from the attention of the occupiers. Early in life, he learned about Johannes Kepler, whose geometric insights changed the nature of astronomy, and Mandelbrot made it one of his goals to achieve a similar breakthrough. After the war, his academic skills got him into the École Polytechnique, an elite training school for military engineers. Then he bounced around from Caltech to the French air force to the University of Paris to the Institute for Advanced Studies. Along the way, he made the acquaintance of an impressive number of scientific giants, acquired a doctorate and a love of music and married Aliette Kagan, with whom he would spend the rest of his life. To this point, his career showed more promise than achievement. Taking a job with IBM, which encouraged basic research with no obvious application to its products, turned out to be his best move. There, he found his interest in “roughness” led to geometric insights that opened doors in a number of fields. The final pages are a summary of accomplishments, publications and recognitions. Interestingly, the narrative deliberately avoids mathematics and therefore gives only the vaguest suggestion of his actual work. That decision undoubtedly makes the book more accessible to general readers, but it also throws the emphasis on the more superficial aspects of his career. Nonetheless, the portraits of his contemporaries and their milieu are worth the read.
Charmingly written, but readers interested in the nature of the work that won him his accolades will have to look elsewhere.