The uncle I knew best was a noted mathematician, who reached the top of the French academia when he was 38 and I was 13. His example showed that science was not fully recorded in dusty tomes but was a flourishing enterprise, and becoming myself a scientist was always a familiar option.

This might have set me now on the usual pattern of fond reminiscences of teachers and postdoctorate mentors. But, in fact, I seem to have fled from teachers, mentors and existing disciplines. As a result, no one influenced my scientific life more than this uncle. The wonder is not, perhaps, that my scientific life ran against pattern, but that it ran and developed at all.

While still an adolescent, my uncle had fallen in love with a certain branch of mathematics, and he remained utterly faithful to it throughout his life. He left Poland for France at age...

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