Mandelbrot’s The Fractalist: Part 1, “How I came to be a Scientist” – Surviving World War 2

Chapter 1 Highlights

Mandelbrot’s book tells the story in a fractal nature – bouncing big and small and returning to reinforce important topics.  From this first family photo Mandelbrot introduces us to the adults that shaped his young life, helped him survive World War II, and put him in position to excel when life provided him with options.  What a family!

Best Quote(s)

“As observed by a writer native to that part of Europe, Woe to the poet born in an interesting piece of geography in a violent time.”

Mandelbrot’s fractals visual replication of geographic features – coast lines and elevations, was one of the first clear victories of the new field.  Mandelbrot’s life would move about the globe, making big leaps and small.

“Other war survivors describe being in a herd on the way to the death camps, noticing a way out, and taking it instantly. That is the kind of man Father was.”

Little opportunities lead to big changes.  Mandelbrot’s family would face many opportunities where following the herd would have led to a very different life – or even death.  Instead, they found the way out.

“They never shouted at each other but argued constantly about strategy, and they taught me very early that before taking big risks, one must carefully figure the odds.”

Discussion of risks helps mitigate risks.  Identify risks, then address them.

“Like many social customs, it could be defied, but at a cost: not being part of a system of patronage that is pervasive in intellectual and professional groups.”

Mandelbrot’s career would lack the rudder of mentorship – but he made up for it by staying focused on finding a larger calling and harnessing his intellectual capabilities and breadth of interests with hard work.

Chapter 2 Highlights

Warsaw shaped Mandelbrot as his first home, site of his early education and as a way of life that would be completely erased.  His family focused on staying alive and ahead of the Nazi advance at a time when others who were less urgent were murdered.

Best Quote(s)

“For these and other truly unavoidable reasons, Polish history from 1919 to 1939 was rough.”

Rough – just like the fractals that Mandelbrot invented.

“Since diversity cannot be avoided, one may as well like it (as I came to) or at least learn to live with it.”

This is a delightfully modern approach to diversity that is all too common in more integrated, international cultures.

“Before everything they had dreaded became horribly concrete in Poland, my parents’ bold scheme had worked.” Chapter 2, Location 659

His parents craft successful strategies again and again, allowing their family to survive and innovate on behalf of mankind.

“Of the people we knew, we alone moved to France and survived. Most procrastinated—until times turned awful. Only two Warsaw friends survived:…” Chapter 2, Location 663

The eradication of this world is frightening and it pervades Mandelbrot’s view of the world for the rest of his life.  How could it not?

“Others had been detained by their precious china, or inability to sell their Bösendorfer concert grand piano, or unwillingness to abandon the park view from their windows. Mother was horrified by their stories but listened stone-faced.” Chapter 2, Location 668

When the Mandelbrot family needed to act, they did so – unencumbered by the weight of their past.  They moved with focus to achieve their goal, survival.

Chapter 3 Highlights

Pages – ; Locations 675 – 860

Mandelbrot’s youth is about promise and his family’s focus on survival.  In Chapter 3 we find our young student in France with a need to exceed in education, but with the reader knowing that war and atrocity lie in his future.

Best Quote(s)

“By pulling up their deep roots in a community that only a few years later vanished in smoke, my lucid and decisive parents saved us all and earned the utmost gratitude.” Chapter 3, Location 681

Chapter two told us of the wonderful upbringing, education and life lessons that Mandelbrot experienced in Poland – all of which were wiped away with the Nazi invasion and Holocaust.  The lessons of his parents’ focus on survival is repeated throughout the book.

“Each time I recall that successful exam, my heart rejoices. Lady Luck is blind and needs assistance. In 1936, my parents assisted by moving out of Poland. In 1937, I was called to assist—and I did.”  Chapter 3, Location 795

From Mandelbrot’s mind, “My parents kept us alive – and to make the most of it I had to nail that test.  What fortune!”

“A belated benefit from my years of Latin is that they helped me correctly coin new words—like “fractal.”” Chapter 3, Location 833

Mandelbrot’s writing follows his study of roughness – we know where the story is going, and still the book plays out like a mystery.  We know the ending – otherwise who would read this autobiography?  Throughout he foreshadows his contribution to science and math.

Chapter 4 Highlights

Mandelbrot’s family continues to survive as the violence of World War II escalates.  Hard work provides a way out.  Luck breaks for the family again.

Best Quote(s)

“Xenophobia lost, meritocracy won, and she deliberately misplaced my family’s files.” Chapter 4, Location 879

The family survived many challenging times in WW2 – and they did so with some lucky breaks and a commitment to hard work.

“When I was nearing forty, my work became devoted to the phenomenon called intermittence, present in both nature and the financial markets.” Chapter 4, Location 885

Again, we see Mandelbrot foreshadowing his focus on fractals and the study of roughness.

“The final examination included two very easy problems, which I saw instantly to be a single problem stated in two different ways. Apparently, few students noticed.” Chapter 4, Location 1030

Mandelbrot manages to describe his academic and scientific prowess directly without boasting – that is a communication skill to envy.

Chapter 5 Highlights

Mandelbrot continued to excel in his studies despite the oppression of the Nazi occupation of France.  He studied shapes, and used the basic of geometry in novel ways to solve problems more fitting for older students.

Best Quote(s)

“True to our antiherding instinct, our family decided it was best to split up: the boys on their own, and the parents on theirs.” Chapter 5, Location 1068

It is remarkable that parents would make this decision – it had to have been agonizing.  And it was the right one.

“Not unlike sports, the bulk of training consisted of mastering a single but extremely arcane gesture.” Chapter 5, Location 1079

When brilliant minds comment on sport and athletics, the observations are always fascinating.

“Oradour-sur-Glane is a little town where the Waffen SS committed a horrible massacre in 1944, herding 642 villagers into a church and setting it on fire.” Chapter 5, Location 1118

Referring back to the family decision by the Mandelbrot’s to split up – the acts of violence by the Nazis defy the civility of modern life.  As we will see in a later chapter, the Mandelbrot decision saved the lives of their children.

“In a way, I was learning to cheat.”  Chapter 5, Location 1197

By learning to think in shapes, Mandelbrot would teach himself ways to think that even he considered cheating.  His life’s great accomplishment is taking that way of thinking, using it to study roughness and sharing it with the rest of humanity.

Chapter 6 Highlights

Mandelbrot deploys his genius in order to help an aristocrat maintain the family horse farm while a war rages in the background.  Carnegie uses animals to endear the reader to people – and the olfactory descriptions of a young Dr. Mandelbrot amidst equestrians is powerful imagery.

Best Quote(s)

“Nobody ever listens to me, but you did. And you remembered everything. You can’t be altogether bad.” Chapter 6, Location 1242

Mandelbrot takes a page out of the Carnegie playbook from How to Win Friends and Influence People.

“Horse owning Gentry thought Germany would win, “I cajoled them, first to listen to Swiss radio in French, then to France Libre in London.”” Chapter 6, Location 1298

From a persuasion standpoint, Mandelbrot was pacing his gentrified hosts to understand there were more possibilities about what might happen with the war.

Chapter 7 Highlights 

Locations 1312 – 1347

We wrap up the first part of Mandelbrot’s life – with a wonderful preview of the 2nd and third parts.  The family made a bold bet to split up, and it was truly necessary based on the gruesome description of French resistance youths meeting their death hanging from street lamps.

Best Quote(s)

“The bold plan our parents had devised—bless their hard-won survivor skills—had let them and their sons cope with events separately. This bet, the riskiest of our complicated lives, worked better than any realist could have hoped.” Chapter 7, Location 1335

The plan had worked, all four were alive – while other families in similar situations were never to meet again.

“During this second, twelve-year stage of my life, I was not going to manage elegantly—as will be seen. So, in time, I deliberately provoked a belated third stage.” Chapter 7, Location 1347

Mandelbrot’s self reflection is impressive.

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