A rock tune celebrating his work has become an Internet hit. But did it please the professor himself?
Question: Which honor means more to you: your Légion d'Honneur medal or the “Mandelbrot Set” rock song?
Benoit Mandelbrot: Well, I happen to know this song, it was sent to me and I was very impressed by it and by its popularity. In a certain sense, it is not which one, but the combination. When people ask me what’s my field? I say, on one hand, a fractalist. Perhaps the only one, the only full-time one. On the other hand, I’ve been a professor of mathematics at Harvard and at Yale. At Yale for a long time. But I’m not a mathematician only. I’m a professor of physics, of economics, a long list. Each element of this list is normal. The combination of these elements is very rare at best. And so in a certain sense, it is not the fact that I was a professor of mathematics at these great universities, or professor of physics at other great universities, or that I received, among other doctorates, one in medicine, believe it or not. And one in civil engineering. It is the coexistence of these various aspects that in one lifetime it is possible, if one takes the kinds of risks which I took, which are colossal, but taking risks, I was rewarded by being able to contribute in a very substantial fashion to a variety of fields. I was able to reawaken and solve some very old problems. The problems are just so old that in a certain sense, they were no longer being pursued. And nobody – I didn’t know anybody who was trying to define roughness of ****. It was a hopeless subject. But I did it and there’s a whole field by which has been created by that.
In a certain sense the beauty of what I happened by extraordinary chance to put together is that nobody would have believed that this is possible, and certainly I didn’t expect that it was possible. I just moved from step to step to step. Lately I realized that all these things held together, and very lately I see that in each field very old problems could be if not solved, at least advanced or reawakened, and therefore gradually very much improved in your understanding.
Recorded on February 17, 2010
Interviewed by Austin rnAllen