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如何择业

        1945年,二战即将结束,法国最负盛名的两所大学巴黎高等师范(文中简称Normale)和巴黎高等理工(Carva)重新招生。这两所大学是法国以才选人服务公众的象征。高师只招生25人,最受尊重,旨在培养大学教师,一直是法国乃至全世界的数学重镇。高等理工招收200人,受重视程度仅次于高师,毕业生均须服务政府,严格按各自成绩分别有其远大前程。
        入学考试难得不可理喻。21岁的Benoit Mandelbrot考得第一名,可以在两所大学中任选其一,家中为此召开家庭会议。他们是犹太人家庭,1937年才自波兰逃来,再早前是在立陶宛。
        叔叔建议去巴黎高师,纯粹科学带来最大的人生满足。一位表亲认为高师也好高等理工也好都是精英治国时代的余晖。哪个也不要去,要去地方大学接地气。
        父亲则说,无论学什么,要像远离瘟疫一样远离依赖政府扶持的学问和机构,要学那些无论在哪个国家无论谁在台上都用得着的东西,比如工程学。一家人已被不可测的命运连根拔起过六次,得知道什么学问才能安身立命。
        叔叔是法国当时一流的数学家,表亲是一流的物理化学家,而父亲是一个不成功的小商人,惟一所长是全性命于乱世。
        Mandelbrot去了巴黎高师,但只呆了一天便退学,转入巴黎高等理工,却没有走上高等理工毕业生前往法国政商两界的通途。他游学大西洋两岸,与冯卡曼、德布罗意、维纳、冯诺伊曼、奥本海默、皮亚杰等均有遇合。他绝大部分学术生涯在IBM实验室渡过,创始分形几何学,跨越学科,追逐粗糙(roughness),直到人生暮年才转入学术正统,成为耶鲁大学有史以来获得终身教职时年纪最大的教授。他走的路最接近父亲的教诲。
    下面的对话摘自他的自传Fractalist,我译作《分形者》。
A family “war council” was called to help: Szolem and a second cousin and close friend—the leading physical chemist, Michel Magat—met in February 1945 in our Belleville tenement. Uncle and Cousin were brilliant and forceful, politically engaged but unbelievably partisan and naïve, as it soon turned out. They battled against each other and Father for my future and my soul. Exact words are, of course, forgotten, but the message remains clear in my mind. 
 
UNCLE: Carva transforms bright students into soulless bureaucrats who can’t run anything properly. They won World War I, but lost World War II. Follow the path I took, and add one thing I missed. Go to Normale. No career brings the rewards of pure science. It gives you both freedom and insurance, because the alumni take care of their own. If you are unlucky and discover nothing important—but don’t worry, you will have no problems—you will become a high school teacher. No career comes closer in serving society, and you will be happy and proud of yourself. 
 
COUSIN: Inescapable social and political forces are about to abolish both schools. Carva is a bastion of obsolete ideas and old ways. They will teach you nothing, only make you feel you belong to the elite. Normale is just as bad. Consider the École Supérieure de Physique et de Chimie. It is supported by a city—not the state—and knows how to train people to become down-to-earth scientists. 
 
FATHER: Don’t listen to either of them. Thriving as a scientist is a lottery. Szolem won a jackpot by being smart but also by coming to France at precisely the right time. But France, Europe, and much of the world are a total mess—no one can predict what will happen next. Cousin’s predictions are not serious. Besides, if the Russians help the Communists come to power here, you may be forced to pull up roots once again and move to a new country—Brazil, Argentina … who knows? Since we married, Mother and I were wiped out six times by events over which we had no control. 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. 

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