Mandelbrot’s The Fractalist Chapter 08: Paris: Exam Hell, Agony of Choice, and One Day at the École Normale Supérieure, 1944–45

Part Two – My Long and Meandering Education in Science and in Life

Mandelbrot has now survived World War II, but with survival he is now quickly forced into major life decisions.  Which school to attend?  His decision to attend Normal – which he does for 1 day before realizing he has made a mistake – is met with a quick reversal.  He attends Polytechnique.  Uncle Szolem is embarassed, but what courageous behavior for a young man to exhibit at a hectic time of life.

Best Quote(s)

“The high stakes terrified us all, and my parents did not trust my teachers. So a family “war council” was called to help:…” Location 1430

This is more of a statement about me – as the writer of this chapter summary and blog, than it is about Mandelbrot.  I’d never heard of a family doing such a formal review before helping a young member make a major life decision.  The examples that Mandelbrot shares of the other great scientists – who went on to win Noble prizes and more, shows the wisdom of such a process.

“Good wine or cheese must not be rushed. So why rush good humans by pressing a cookie cutter on a malleable young mind?” Location 1536

By attending Polytechnique, Mandelbrot would enter into a French bureaucratic educational system that would force him to pause his scientific career several times to follow the rules of the state.  Rather than seeing this idle time as a waste, he embraced it and believed it to help his ultimate achievements in developing a theory of roughness and fractals.

Page by Page, Location by Location



“I wanted to keep close to geometry and to prepare myself to realize in some way that Keplerian dream I had formulated not too long before. The scary exams proved a cinch and brought about the first, the freest, and most agonizing professional choice of my life.”

“… [Mandelbrot’s] mathematics teacher, M. Pons, hailed me in the street, and we had our first and last private conversation. “Let’s talk about the big math problem at Polytechnique. I could not solve it in the time allowed, but examiners say that—in the whole of France—one student did solve it, and he is from my class. Could it be you?” “Well, I did solve the entire problem—including every optional question at the end.” “How did you manage? No human could resolve that triple integral in the time allowed!” “I saw that it is the volume of the sphere. But you must first change the given coordinates to the strange but intrinsic coordinates I thought the underlying geometry suggested.” “Oh!” And he walked away, repeating, “But of course, of course, of course!””


“Plain and simple, not only had I survived the war, but in France I had it made for life. Of course, nothing could guarantee that I would mature into a great scientist—or a great anything. But either school could open every door and provided a kind of automatic lifelong insurance. All this was simply beyond belief. Only nine years since my move to France, only months since the liberation, and still officially residing in that slum of Belleville, I was in no way ready for such choices.”


“Then I moved to the United States—where French credits had no value.”


“Regular schooling identifies sensible ambitions, and my classmates had been preparing over much of their lives.”

“By contrast, I was both underschooled and suddenly overadvised. Only months before, I had been desperately focused on staying alive.”


“The high stakes terrified us all, and my parents did not trust my teachers. So a family “war council” was called to help:…”


“Also, never forget something basic: professors are civil servants. Trouble may leave you somewhere—as it did Mother—with a worthless foreign certification. Keep away from state-certified fields and large national organizations. Education, health, and law are the plague. Go for broad engineering skills that every country will need under every political regime.”


“One hears the same advice today all over the media: don’t count on lifetime protection from one employer.”


Monod – “It reported that as a biologist he would match Pasteur and as a musician he would match Mozart. He chose biology and won a Nobel Prize.”

Von Neumann – who was excellent as a child in both math and chemical engineering also had a ‘war council’ with his family, “The advice was that he should do both. He perfected an alloy whose composition is not expected to ever be encountered again.”


“What am I doing here? This is absolutely the wrong place for me.” Reversing out of Normale – what a courageous decision for a young man to realize he had made a mistake, and to then reverse it.


“It was indeed the absolute worst place for a strong-willed person with already clearly defined tastes.”


“Individual decisions are randomly influenced by history in the making.”


“Having entered Normale, this boy has left on his second day and is about to enter Polytechnique.”

Paul Levy teaching statistics.


“Sierpiński intellectual and political views made Uncle flee Poland, and Bourbaki made me leave Normale in 1945—and France in 1958.”


“Its practical applicability revealed that it reflects the irreducible messiness of where I have chosen to work—the scientific frontier.”


“Many people I know and respect value efficient processing of youths and view “wasted time” as harmful, even threatening, or immoral.”

“Good wine or cheese must not be rushed. So why rush good humans by pressing a cookie cutter on a malleable young mind?” Location 1536


“A glance at the alumni directory shows that this talk was not followed by action.” What if France did not rebuild? Should they flee afar? Brazil, Argentina


“In the absence of a well-defined set of rules to play by, the very notion of precocity ceases to make sense.”

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