As noted in his quote below, Mandelbrot enters Polytechnique literally in rags and is one of the few international students. He devours the opportunities in front of him, while also realizing that the degree will provide him golden handcuffs that tie him to France – which may not be the best geography for someone with his Keplerian dream.
“… my whole life’s orbit was to show that professional authority did not awe me either.” Chapter 9, Location 1645
Mandelbrot listens to authority – and is politely interested in its guidance. However, he does not blindly obey.
“Plus, all generally valid rules suffer from deviant exceptions, and I went on to prove that a person profoundly rooted in classics may very well be a successful, yet troublemaking, maverick.” Chapter 9, Location 1746
Mandelbrot was classically trained at Polytechnique, and he had a deep education in geometry – albeit learned in nontraditional ways. It was this domain expertise in these fields that led him to create the study of fractals.
Page by Page, Swipe by Swipe
“The many perks that come with the degree give few graduates an incentive to live outside of France—ordinarily, a prerequisite to renown abroad.”
“But then it became less and less important until it faded into a nice memory of youth.”
“With the exception of a classmate who died, I was the school’s only foreign student over a period of nearly ten years.”
“I had entered the school literally in rags.”
“I was reminded of my serial number (1179) and of the pride I had felt when—shortly after I had trashed my rags—I was measured for a masterpiece of custom tailoring.”
“Marching in grand U, we had performed for Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill, and other lesser historical figures. Most oddly—and memorably—we honored Ho Chi Minh!”
“Captain Wolf commented that although my 2/ 20 suggested a willful troublemaker, it only meant that I had no concept of the role of military authority. This was indeed the case—and my whole life’s orbit was to show that professional authority did not awe me either.”
“Gaudeamus igitur, juvenes dum sumus (While we are young, let us rejoice).”
““How come twenty-year-old students in France are so much better in math?” Part of the answer: “Because they are, in effect, bribed.”
“Graduation rank actually predicted future performance very poorly. Yet many of my classmates played key roles in rebuilding France after the war. They faced weak competition because our immediate elders had led largely disrupted lives, were not fluent in English, and suffered other handicaps.”
Future French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing,
“…He kept telling everyone that he will be a député [national representative] by thirty, minister of finance by forty, president of the republic by fifty, and president of Europe by sixty. How stupid can you get?”
“Students did not attend Carva for quality teaching, but rather for useful classmates and good jobs.”
“It contained Painlevé’s pre-Wright proof that—granted certain “natural” mathematical assumptions—airplanes could not possibly fly!”
“This proof deserves to be republished as a warning ⚠️ to scientists that a theory can be killed by an assumption that looks mathematically “natural” but was not chosen by nature.”
“Plus, all generally valid rules suffer from deviant exceptions, and I went on to prove that a person profoundly rooted in classics may very well be a successful, yet troublemaking, maverick.”
“His self-directed boldness and insight cost him much in his career and early recognition, but I found his independence admirable. I felt ready to pay the same price.”