Review: The Fractalist: Memoir of a Scientific Maverik

New York Review of Books (May 23, 2013) reviews Benoit Mandelbrot’s The Fractalist: Memoir of a Scientific Maverik (Pantheon). 

Mandelbrot was born in Warsaw in 1924 and luckily joined his mathematician uncle in Paris. When he came to US he had brushes with several US universities, such as MIT, Harvard and Chicago, but he did not fit into the mainstream of academic mathematics and found a home at the mathematics research laboratory of IBM in Yorktown Heights, Westchester County, New York. After age sixty-five he was appointed a professor at Yale University. Mandelbrot contributed importantly to the development of fractals, which I came across after 1985 when Institute for Humane Studies affiliated with George Mason University and I had regular contact with Burton Grey. Grey was at the cutting edge of new mathematical research.

I had an earlier acquaintance with the IBM mathematical research laboratory when I registered for a summer school class in mathematics at New York University (along with a class in the History of Economic Thought). At the Washington Birthday weekend of February, 1952 I was in New York with Students for Taft for Senator Robert Alphonso Taft’s presidential campaign when I had an appendicitis operation and could not return for three weeks to my freshman classes at Georgetown College. When I returned, the dean recommended I drop mathematics to concentrate on catching up in the other classes (actually, I did so strongly in World Political Geography that I was admitted into the regular Air ROTC (I was in a special status due to eye sight)). The mathematics class at NYU was taught by Stefan Bauer-Mengelberg whose family had moved from Heidelberg before the Second World War. Bauer-Mandelberg was a good teacher, so I passed the course and received credit. Before and after class he would talk with a couple of friends who may have been graduate students about music as well as mathematics. Bauer-Mendelberg had a long career at the IBM mathematics research laboratory where he pursued mathematical music as well as fractals. He was an assistant director of the NY Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein, and director of the St. Louis Symphony. The NY Philharmonic played one part of a computer based symphony which I heard for a while but it was not listenable. IBM’s mathematical research was an important contribution to scholarship outside the limits of mainstream mathematics.