Benoit Mandelbrot’s memoir is published

A fascinating posthumous autobiography of famed mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot has just been published by Pantheon Books.

The book includes a fascinating account of his youth growing up as a Jew in the war-torn years of the 1930s and 1940s. Born in Warsaw in 1924 and raised in a well-educated household whose Lithuanian roots were said to have produced “men of great learning.” His uncle, Szolem Mandelbrojt, was a star among French mathematicians in the early 20th century. In 1931 his father emigrated to Paris, to be joined by Benoit and the rest of the family in 1936. It was a good thing — if they had waited even a few years, almost certainly they would have perished in the Holocaust.

Mandelbrot attempts to describe, in fairly readable terms, the overall thrust of his research, which is to identify phenomena in nature that while “complex” in appearance, are nonetheless governed by very simple laws. Perhaps the iconic example is the Mandelbrot set, an image of fiendish complexity, which is generated by a “very plan” formula: “Pick a constant c and let the original z be at the origin of the plane; replace z by z times z; add the constant c; repeat.”

These and other details of the book are summarized in a nicely written book review by Adam Kirsch.

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