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The Fractalist: Memoir of a Scientific Maverick (Englisch) Gebundene Ausgabe – Rauer Buchschnitt, 30. Oktober 2012
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“This is a wonderful memoir. It is personal, occasionally opinionated, at times beautifully written, and with a narrative encompassing a wide range of times, places, and people.” –Mark McCartney, London Mathematical Society
“Mandelbrot changed the way we look at a wide range of random phenomena from commodity prices to the shapes of mountains, rivers, and coastlines…The memoir captures the enthusiasm as well as the memories of a visionary who loved nothing better than studying complex multidisciplinary concepts.” –Publishers Weekly
“‘When I find myself in the company of scientists,’ W. H. Auden wrote, ‘I feel like a shabby curate who has strayed by mistake into a drawing room full of dukes.’ Benoit B. Mandelbrot (1924-2010) had the kind of beautiful, buzzing mind that made even gifted fellow scientists feel shabby around the edges…The Fractalist evokes the kinds of deceptively simple questions Mandelbrot asked—‘What shape is a mountain, a coastline, a river or a dividing line between two river watersheds?’—and the profound answers he supplied.” –Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“Memoir of a brilliant mathematician who never thought of himself as a mathematician…charmingly written.” –Kirkus
“Benoit Mandelbrot was the one who let us appreciate chaos in all its glory—the noisy, the wayward, and the freakish, from the very small to the very large. He invented a new and slightly nebulous field of study—a kind of geometry, for want of a better description—and he invented that recondite name for it, fractal.
“Clouds are not spheres—the most famous sentence he ever wrote—mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line.
“They are all fractal. Clouds, mountains, coastlines, bark, and lightning: jagged and discontinuous, they are shapes that branch out or fold in upon themselves recursively.
“He found relevant mathematics in some old and freakish ideas—‘monsters,’ as he said, ‘mathematical pathologies’ that had been relegated to the fringes.
“‘I started looking in the trash cans of science for such phenomena,’ he said, and he meant this literally: one scrap he grabbed from a mathematician’s wastebasket to read on the Paris subway inspired an important 1965 paper, ‘Information Theory and Psycholinguistics.’ Information theory led to fractals when he took a close look at the problem of noise in communications lines. There was always noise, and on average it seemed manageable, but analysis revealed that normal bell-curve averages didn’t apply.
“It was the same with brainwaves, fluid turbulence, seismic tremors, and—oh, yes—finance.
“But he was not really an economist, or a physiologist, or a physicist, or an engineer.
“‘Very often when I listen to the list of my previous jobs, I wonder if I exist,’ he said once. ‘The intersection of such sets is surely empty.’”
—James Gleick, author of The Information
“The Fractalist is a well-written tale of a scientific life, complete with first-person accounts of a surprising range of scientific greats.” –Stephen Wolfram, The Wall Street Journal
Über den Autor und weitere Mitwirkende
A graduate of the École Polytechnique, Benoit Mandelbrot obtained his doctorate from the University of Paris and spent more than thirty-five years at IBM as a research scientist. Best known as the father of fractal geometry, he transformed our understanding of information theory, economics, fluid turbulence, nonlinear dynamics, and geophysics. He died on October 14, 2010.Alle Produktbeschreibungen
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Mandelbrot was one of those chosen few scientists in history who are generalists, people whose ideas impact a vast landscape of fields. A maverick in the best sense of the term, he even went one step further and created his own field of fractal geometry. In a nutshell, he developed a "theory of roughness", and the fractals which represent this roughness are now household names, even making it into "Jurassic Park". Today fractals are known to manifest themselves in a staggering range of phenomena; the rhythms of the heart, the distribution of galaxies, market fluctuations, the rise and fall of species populations, the shapes of blood vessels, earthquakes, and the weather. Before Mandelbrot scientists liked to deal with smooth averages and equilibria, assuming that the outliers, the "pathologies", the sudden jumps from normalcy were rare and could be ignored. Mandelbrot proved that they can't and found methods to tame them and bring them into the mainstream. His insights into this new view of nature effected minor and major revolutions in fields as diverse as economics, astronomy, physiology and fluid dynamics. More than almost any other thinker he was responsible for teaching natural and social scientists to model the world as it is rather than the abstraction which they want it to be.
In this memoir Mandelbrot describes his immensely eventful and somewhat haphazard journey to these revelations. The volume is quirky, charming, wide-ranging, often lingering on self-similar themes, much like his fractals; gorgeous colored pictures of these are included in the book in the form of plates. The memoir is divided into three parts. The first deals with family history, childhood influences and wartime experiences. The second deals with a peripatetic, broad scientific education. The third details Mandelbrot's great moments of discovery, the ones he calls "Keplerian moments" in homage to the great astronomer who realized the power of abstract mathematical notions to illuminate reality.
Mandelbrot grew up in a Lithuanian family first in Warsaw and then in France. He came from an educated and intellectually alert household. His most formative influences were his garment-maker father and dentist mother and especially his mathematician uncle Szolem. The parents had acquired great reserves of tenacity, having been uprooted from one place to another at least six times because of the depression. Szolem had toured the great centers of European mathematics and knew quite a few famous mathematicians himself. Mandelbrot grew up steeped in the mathematical beauty and folklore which Szolem vividly imparted to him. A dominant theme in the household was self-improvement, constantly challenging oneself to do better. This theme served Benoit well.
Mandelbrot's early years were marked by the rise of Nazism. After the fall of France his family fled Paris, taking refuge in the south of France before the country was liberated. There were dangerous moments, like his father narrowly escaping a strafing and Benoit and his cousin being interrogated by the Vichy police. After the war Mandelbrot studied at the prestigious École Polytechnique. At this point his central character started to reveal itself; an intellectual restless that inspired forays into diverse fields, a thirst for knowledge that would take him to many corners of the globe, a tendency to question orthodox wisdom and most importantly, an unwillingness to be a specialist. All these traits would turn out to be paramount in his future discoveries. Throughout his life Mandelbrot was known as a sometimes cantankerous and difficult person, but while there is a trace of these qualities in his memoir, most of the volume is generous in acknowledging the influence of family, friends, colleagues and institutions. The one thing the memoir lacks is material on his wife and children; what role did they play in his life and work?
His intellectual restlessness led him across the Atlantic to major centers of scientific research including Caltech, MIT and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where he was the last postdoc of the great mathematician John von Neumann. Part of the joy of the book comes from Mandelbrot's accounts of encounters with a veritable who's who of late twentieth century science including von Neumann, Oppenheimer, Wiener, Feynman, Chomsky and Stephen Jay Gould. A particularly memorable incident has him flabbergasted by a penetrating comment from an audience member and Oppenheimer and von Neumann coming to his defense to explain his ideas even better than he could. At all these institutions Mandelbrot worked on a remarkable variety of problems, from aircraft design to linguistics, and acquired a rare, extremely broad education that would serve him in good stead.
As he explains, the trajectory of Mandebrot's life was irrevocably changed when his uncle Szolem introduced him to a law named Zipf's Law that deals with the frequencies of words in various languages. Mandelbrot discovered that Zipf's law led to some counterintuitive and universal results that could only be explained by non-standard distributions; this was when he discovered the high prevalence of what many had previous considered to be "rare" events. His work in this area as well as some preliminary work in economics led him to a highly productive position at IBM. Mandelbrot describes IBM's remarkable scientific culture that allowed scientists like him to pursue unfettered basic scientific research; sadly that culture has now all but vanished in many organizations. During this time he stayed in touch with academia, giving seminars at many leading universities. Ironically, it was Mandelbrot's lack of specialization that made universities reluctant to hire him; implicitly, his experience is also a critique of an academic system that discourages broad thinkers and generalists. The difficulty of pinning down an unconventional thinker like Mandelbrot is reflected in the fact that Chicago found his interests too spread out while Harvard thought them too narrow!
But IBM was more than happy to support his multiple intellectual forays and in addition to his own explorations he also has accounts of IBM's pioneering work in software and graphics design. It was while at IBM that Mandelbrot discovered what he is most famous for - fractals. As the book recounts, the work arose partly from analyzing price and market fluctuations. Mandelbrot was struck by the uncanny similarity of disparate price and income curves and realized that the equilibrium model that economists were relying for decades was of little use in analyzing real world jumps which tended to be much more frequent than normal distributions would indicate. In a set of stunning and sweeping intellectual insights engendered by his broad scientific background, Mandelbrot realized that the math underlying an astonishing range of phenomena, from economic fluctuations to geographic coastlines, is the same. His work in this area was seminal by any standard, but it was not adopted by economists partly because they found it difficult to use and partly because the field was entrenched in established ideas from equilibrium models. It was only in the 1980s that his insights became accepted into the mainstream, and the global recession in 2008 and the shocks to the economy have soundly validated his fractal fluctuation models. Outliers are not so rare after all, and as Nassim Taleb has documented, their impact can be tremendous and unpredictable. The parts of the book charting the road leading to fractals are fascinating and clearly detail the advantage of having a broad scientific background.
In spite of the lukewarm reception by economists Mandelbrot persevered along his general line of thinking, and in the late 1970s he discovered the iconic Mandelbrot set which made him a household name. Starting from an almost laughably simple formula, one quickly generates what has been called the most complex object in mathematics. The stunning geometry of the set today dots everything from murals to coffee mugs and there are hundreds of websites on which you can generate the set and examine it. Zooming in on the picture reveals a thick and endlessly complex jungle of self-similar geometric shapes and convolutions; one can gaze at this mesmerizing creature for hours.
Mandelbrot retired from IBM in the 80s and his career culminated in his appointment as the Sterling professor at Yale University. His eventful journey, from Warsaw to New Haven, holds many key lessons for us. He taught us to celebrate diversity and broad interests in an era of specialization. He shifted the focus of scientists from the idealized experiments of their laboratories to the messy world of reality. And he made it clear that many of the most penetrating insights into nature like fractals emerge from asking simple questions and exploring the obvious; What's the length of Britain's coastline? What's the shape of clouds? How does the heart beat?
It is hard to think of a twentieth century thinker whose ideas have influenced so many disciplines, and the fruits of Mandelbrot's labors promise continuing revelations long after his death in 2010. His memoir makes a resounding case for the virtues of indulging in, in Feynman's words, "perfectly reasonable deviations from the beaten track".
For people that have a fear of math - this is a great book. In fact, there is only one equation in the entire book. Instead this memoir gets into the thoughts of one of the 20th century's greatest minds. Mandelbrot constantly avoided structure, smoothness, and the status quo. In essence, his life was rough and that was exactly the way he liked it. Despite living under constant uncertainty, Mandelbrot never complains or worries over the lack of security he faced, frankly, he realized that he thrived under such conditions.
It was refreshing to read a memoir free of over-causation. Often the autobiography of a famous person is filled with causes on how and why they were so successful.. Instead, Mandelbrot writes the major events in his life as best he can remember them (often finding support in pictures or items from his archives) and examines how luck, skill, and perseverance shaped his career. Sometimes choices were made for him, other times he chose an unconventional path on purpose but he never stopped trying to find his "Keplerian" contribution to math. Somehow he grasped at a young age that true discoveries are not gained through climbing the established academic ladder but by tinkering on the verge of such structures.
It is impossible to summarize this book into one review (the sign of a good book) yet there are some themes that have powerful messages for people sick of the archaic hierarchy of academia. If you have a stiff upper lip you can make contributions to the world by not climbing ladders. Working outside of established structure is the true mother of invention. Mandelbrot described himself as a "maverick" which I find as a very apt description of his personality; He did not rebel completely from mathematics yet he rarely paid heed to tenured professors. He jumped between many "established" fields such as economics and contributed significant amounts of material to those willing to listen. His maverick lifestyle helped more people than if he had settled for a "secure" professorship in Paris.
In closing, I have a hard time writing this review because the memoir does not fit into a standard style of writing; that is why I enjoyed the book. I encourage everyone to read it, if you are a follower of Mandelbrot than I am sure it will be a wonderful experience. If you have never read Mandelbrot or understand the nature of some of his work than I encourage you to read the memoir but keep an open mind and use the book as a starting point to his other works. The world was blessed to have such a bright mind, and hopefully other mavericks have been created by following his example.
Mandelbrot, inventor of fractal geometry, in his own words, perhaps lightly edited, wanted to tell an upcoming generation about the journey of an "outlier", who wanted to say that the rules can be broken, that a life of the mind is preferable in some to wealth, and that the pinnacle of success is reachable climbing this not often taken path.
The wild state: Mandelbrot tells us through a life story that education is no longer about who is worthy enough, as it was often in 1940's France when he came out of hiding after the war to prepare for entrance exams in a few month's time. It is about who is curious enough, whose mind is in one of the three states of risk and randomness, "mild, slow, or wild." Benoit Mandelbrot's mind was definitely in the "wild" state, full of heat and passion for connecting novel ideas.
Benoit Mandelbrot's writing charms, it wanders off, it shows that it's difficult even for a genius to write a coherent memoir, but don't let that stop you. The book has only one formula in it, and major concepts peppered throughout it, in introductory form mostly. It is only one book about a vast personality surviving turbulent historical times, so if you want to go deeper, you will want to read other Mandelbrot books, like "The Misbehavior of Markets: A Fractal View of Financial Turbulence" published in 2007, three years before his death in 2010.
The early part of his book tells us about childhood Jewry during an uncertain Nazi world where risk was in every small decision like his father leaving fellow escapees on the main road where there was safety in numbers, to follow a path through the woods, a decision that saved him from the airplane strafing, where all the escaping prisoners were shot to death, except him. Or the decision to break the family apart sending the sons to work in metal making and on farms, and leaving the parents behind. Small life saving decisions that minimized risks for Mandelbrot's family changed how he thought about the size of risks, and later might have influenced how small unrecognized risks are really large risks for the stock market portending the recent crash.
At a time when the centralization of knowledge in universities and education in general is crumbling and at the same time growing with online education from the likes of Coursera, Edx, and Udacity, his memoir is prescient. His memoir is a testament that knowledge has no edges, it is a whole, not pieces of non-related errata.
As I read I recognized the many, many areas his work affects us personally, on a day to day basis. I'd like to list those but I got so caught up reading the book that I stopped making notes.