A Math Genius’s Sad Calculus
Benoit Mandelbrot, the father of fractal geometry, pens a disturbing new memoir on mathematics—and survival
Life in France was not easy, either—the family was extremely poor and lived in a tenement in the Paris slum of Belleville. But Mandelbrot’s parents believed strongly in the promise of France, and especially in the meritocratic school system. By insisting that Benoit acculturate quickly—learning to speak French without an accent and get along in French society—they gave him skills that would be indispensable after the fall of France in 1940. The Mandelbrots fled Paris for the southern, unoccupied zone, where they survived in the small town of Tulle thanks to the help of friends of uncle Szolem’s. “Our constant fear,” Mandelbrot writes,”was that a sufficiently determined foe might report us to an authority and we would be sent to our deaths. … We escaped this fate. Who knows why?”
One reason why, he suggests, is that his academic brilliance won him special consideration. “Xenophobia lost, meritocracy won,” he writes, and this would become the motto of his French experience:
The chronicles of Eastern Europe included a growing number of stories in which a would-be “butcher” is oversupplied with potential victims and a person perceived to be special is somehow spared. Father must have felt it was very bad to be overly conspicuous, but very good to be seen as rare and special. This attitude, which he probably brought from Warsaw, created in me an elevated level of commitment and ambition.
Thus motivated, Mandelbrot advanced to excellent high schools and then, after the Liberation, to the École Polytechnique, one of the ultra-elite “grands écoles.” More than 60 years later, he still writes with pride about the score he received on his entry examination—the highest in France, not just in that year but possibly ever. From then on, he was more or less guaranteed a cushy career in French academia—though he ended up spending most of his adult life in the United States, drawn by the intellectual freedom offered by IBM’s pure research division.
This back story gives a certain pathos to Mandelbrot’s late-life boasting. Hannah Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism about the plight of the “exception Jew”—the Jew who is recognized as an equal in European society, but only because of his exceptional achievements or charm, like Benjamin Disraeli. For Mandelbrot, his mathematical genius might literally have saved his life during the war years; it certainly raised him from the immigrant poverty in which he was born and introduced him to an international fraternity of elite scientists. But there is also something tragic about Mandelbrot’s conviction he felt that he had to be a genius simply in order to survive.
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