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Voltaire (4) vs. Benoit Mandelbrot; Veronica Geng advances

Yesterday‘s contest was surprisingly tough. I thought of Santa-man and the inventor of the Monte Carlo method as both being strong candidates—but the best comments on both were negative. Phil argued convincingly that there’s no point in inviting Sedaris to speak at Columbia as there are lots of other opportunities to hear the guy, and Ethan pointed out that Ulam co-invented the H-bomb, which is something we really didn’t need. So, much as I’d love to hear Ulam’s comments on the Monte Carlo method, or Sedaris on just about anything (except maybe his complaints about flying first class)—but given the comments we’ve seen, I can’t in good conscience advance either to Round 2. So I’ve decided to advance Veronica Geng for this bracket; I still feel bad for not choosing her the other day.

Today we have the fourth-seeded wit, the man who will defend to the death your right to say it, competing against the inventor of fractals, in my opinion (see here and here) one of the great mathematicians of the twentieth century, which I say even though various snobby math professors might disagree. I’m sure that proving a longstanding conjecture in number theory is a more impressive technical feat than inventing fractals, but, to me, inventing fractals is more of a big deal and more of a creative contribution.

Anyway, I think either Voltaire or Mandelbrot could give a good speech. What do you think?

Again, the full bracket is here, and here are the rules:

We’re trying to pick the ultimate seminar speaker. I’m not asking for the most popular speaker, or the most relevant, or the best speaker, or the deepest, or even the coolest, but rather some combination of the above.

I’ll decide each day’s winner not based on a popular vote but based on the strength and amusingness of the arguments given by advocates on both sides. So give it your best!


  1. zbicyclist says:

    Old joke:

    Q. What does the B. in Benoit B. Mandelbrot stand for?
    A. Benoit B. Mandelbrot

    Voltaire’s most famous quote isn’t really a quote:

    “The most oft-cited Voltaire quotation is apocryphal. He is incorrectly credited with writing, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” These were not his words, but rather those of Evelyn Beatrice Hall, written under the pseudonym S. G. Tallentyre in her 1906 biographical book The Friends of Voltaire. Hall intended to summarize in her own words Voltaire’s attitude towards Claude Adrien Helvétius and his controversial book De l’esprit, but her first-person expression was mistaken for an actual quotation from Voltaire. Her interpretation does capture the spirit of Voltaire’s attitude towards Helvetius; it had been said Hall’s summary was inspired by a quotation found in a 1770 Voltaire letter to an Abbot le Riche, in which he was reported to have said, “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.”[117] Nevertheless, scholars believe there must have again been misinterpretation, as the letter does not seem to contain any such quote.[e]”

    from Wikipedia:

    So why go with a guy whose most famous for something he didn’t say?
    Let’s go with a guy who can give a short, pithy lecture that can blossom into a whole structure of knowledge as we repeat it!

  2. Jonathan (another one) says:

    Jonathan Coulton (or as I think of him, Jonathan (a third one)) has written no songs about Voltaire, but one of the better post-Lehrer math songs about Mandelbrot and his set: Lyrics at

    The bad news is the explicit reference to butterfly effects, but that Coulton’s fault, not Mandelbrot’s. The song was written when he was still alive, and I always liked the lines:

    Mandelbrot’s in heaven, at least he will be when he’s dead
    Right now he’s still alive and teaching math at Yale
    He gave us order out of chaos, he gave us hope where there was none
    His geometry succeeds where others fail.

    Hope where there was none. We need hope, and that definitely wasn’t Voltaire’s long suit.

  3. Dzhaughn says:

    My head was spinning; was I hearing Bwuce Spwingsteen was wead Pwoust to Mr. Weagan.

  4. Manoel Galdino says:

    It’s a shame that Taleb isn’t in the brackets. But in any case, it would be great to have the opportunity to hear Mandelbrot to comment on Taleb’s work. He would probably criticize him for being unoriginal. So, I vote for Mandelbrot.

  5. Phil says:

    Boy, Voltaire isn’t getting much love here…and I don’t know exactly what. I’m just going to quote the “Appreciation and Influence” section of V’s Wikipedia article, since I am too lazy to do more than that. But for those of you who are even lazier, to the extent that you won’t even read it, here’s the money quote: `Jorge Luis Borges stated that “not to admire Voltaire is one of the many forms of stupidity”.’ Now, one can argue that we are looking for the best seminar speaker, not the most admirable one, but in Voltaire’s case what is admired is not just his morals but his rhetoric and his acid tongue in the defense of reason, and those would make for a good speaker.

    According to Victor Hugo: “To name Voltaire is to characterize the entire eighteenth century.”[202] Goethe regarded Voltaire to be the greatest literary figure in modern times, and possibly of all times.[203] According to Diderot, Voltaire’s influence on posterity would extend far into the future.[204][g] Napoleon commented that till he was sixteen he “would have fought for Rousseau against the friends of Voltaire, today it is the opposite…The more I read Voltaire the more I love him. He is a man always reasonable, never a charlatan, never a fanatic.”[205] Frederick the Great commented on his good fortune for having lived in the age of Voltaire, and corresponded with him throughout his reign until Voltaire’s death.[206] In England, Voltaire’s views influenced Godwin, Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, Bentham, Byron and Shelley.[203] Macaulay made note of the fear that Voltaire’s very name incited in tyrants and fanatics.[207][h]

    In Russia, Catherine the Great had been reading Voltaire for sixteen years prior to becoming Empress in 1762.[206][208] In October 1763, she began a correspondence with the philosopher that continued till his death. The content of these letters has been described as being akin to a student writing to a teacher.[209] Upon Voltaire’s death, the Empress purchased his library, which was then transported and placed in The Hermitage.[210] Alexander Herzen remarked that “The writings of the egoist Voltaire did more for liberation than those of the loving Rousseau did for brotherhood.”[211] In his famous letter to N. V. Gogol, Vissarion Belinsky wrote that Voltaire “stamped out the fires of fanaticism and ignorance in Europe by ridicule.”[212]

    In his native Paris, Voltaire was viewed as the defender of Jean Calas and Pierre Sirven.[203] Although he failed in securing the annulment of la Barre’s execution for “blasphemies” against Christianity, despite a protracted campaign, the criminal code that sanctioned the execution was revised during Voltaire’s lifetime.[213] In 1764, Voltaire successfully intervened and secured the release of Claude Chamont for the crime of attending Protestant services. When Comte de Lally was executed for treason in 1766, Voltaire wrote a 300-page document absolving de Lally. Subsequently, in 1778, the judgment against de Lally was expunged just before Voltaire’s death. The Genevan Protestant minister Pomaret once said to Voltaire, “You seem to attack Christianity, and yet you do the work of a Christian.”[214] Frederick the Great noted the significance of a philosopher capable of influencing judges to change their unjust decisions, commenting that this alone is sufficient to ensure the prominence of Voltaire as a humanitarian.[214]

    Under the French Third Republic, anarchists and socialists often invoked Voltaire’s writings in their struggles against militarism, nationalism, and the Catholic Church.[215] The section condemning the futility and imbecility of war in the Dictionnaire philosophique was a frequent favorite, as were his arguments that nations can only grow at the expense of others.[216] Following the liberation of France from the Vichy regime in 1944, Voltaire’s 250th birthday was celebrated in both France and the Soviet Union, honoring him as “one of the most feared opponents” of the Nazi collaborators and someone “whose name symbolizes freedom of thought, and hatred of prejudice, superstition, and injustice.”[217]

    Jorge Luis Borges stated that “not to admire Voltaire is one of the many forms of stupidity” and included his short fiction such as Micromégas in “The Library of Babel” and “A Personal Library.”[218] Gustave Flaubert believed that France had erred gravely by not following the path forged by Voltaire instead of Rousseau.[219] Most architects of modern America were adherents of Voltaire’s views.[203] According to Will Durant:

    Italy had a Renaissance, and Germany had a Reformation, but France had Voltaire; he was for his country both Renaissance and Reformation, and half the Revolution.[202] He was first and best in his time in his conception and writing of history, in the grace of his poetry, in the charm and wit of his prose, in the range of his thought and his influence. His spirit moved like a flame over the continent and the century, and stirs a million souls in every generation.[220]

  6. Lady with a sword says:

    Would I like to go hear Emilie du Chatelet’s sidekick speak? Um, sure. Is he the ultimate seminar speaker? Of course not.

    We should go hear Mandelbrot instead. And we should invite Emilie too since she would be very interested in the mathematical topics.

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