Monday 18 December 2017

Mandelbrot the Magnificent, Liz Ziemska

"Logic sometimes makes monsters"
Born in the Warsaw ghetto and growing up in France during the rise of Hitler, Benoit Mandelbrot found escape from the cruelties of the world around him through mathematics. Logic sometimes makes monsters, and Mandelbrot began hunting monsters at an early age. Drawn into the infinite promulgations of formulae, he sinks into secret dimensions and unknown wonders.

His gifts do not make his life easier, however. As the Nazis give up the pretense of puppet government in Vichy France, the jealousy of Mandelbrot's classmates leads to denunciation and disaster. The young mathematician must save his family with the secret spaces he's discovered, or his genius will destroy them.

* * * 
3 / 5

Occasionally I will dive into a biography of a philosopher or a mathematician. When I do, I like to get a feel for the real person - perhaps via the inclusion of letters that they wrote, or excerpts from interviews, or real conversations - but to also get a sense of the feelings of the author. Mandelbrot the Magnificent was peculiar; it was an easy, engaging read, but I was never quite sure what was truth and fact and what was embellishment on the part of Ziemska.
"the only shame is in humanity's unquenchable desire to destroy itself"

The background of the book is true enough. Born in Poland and Jewish, growing up against the outset  of World War II, Benoit Mandelbrot fled to France with his family: his brother Leon, his tailor father, and dentist mother. They lived with his uncle, a mathematician in his own right, who served as Mandelbrot's inspiration, telling him stories of Kepler and other famous mathematicians. But it was a dangerous time for a young Jewish boy to become notable for his mathematical skill.

Woven into this historical fact are threads that I presume are of Ziemska's invention: a young boy at Mandelbrot's school who is equally gifted in mathematics yet hates him; a book, The Book of Monsters, which sets Mandelbrot on the path of abstract geometry; the hiding of his family from the Gestapo using Hausdorff dimension and Koch snowflakes. In a way, I adored this book, but in another I was constantly pulled out of illusion this book casts with thoughts of "is this what the real Mandelbrot was like?". I got very little insight into the real man and his discoveries in fractal geometry, in information theory. It begins as a memoir but shifts, slowly but surely, into the realm of the magical (I had to reread several paragraphs properly grasp what Ziemska was doing) and the religious. 

Mandelbrot the Magnificient was peculiar and innovative and definitely a special book; it just isn't quite what I expected. One should approach this book as a magical realism novel, a foray into alternate history, set against the backdrop of a real man. 

My thanks to Netgalley, the publisher, and the author for an ARC of this book 

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