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Monday, March 02, 2015

Cédric Villani: ‘Mathematics is about progress and adventure and emotion’

Carole Cadwalladr, features writer for the Observer discovers that fields medal winner Cédric Villani is an impassioned advocate for mathematics.

French mathematician Cedric Villani. 'You have to have an intense interior life.' Photograph: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

The second time I meet Cédric Villani is when I bump into him in the Eurostar terminal in Paris. But then how could I miss him? There are crowds of milling businessmen and weekending couples but there, amid the Sunday-night chaos of the Gare du Nord, is a figure who looks like he’s somehow slipped the space-time continuum: Lord Byron on a mini break. Or Baudelaire who has returned to Earth, only this time as a Parisian banker doing the Monday-Friday commute. He has a silk bow around his neck. His hair flows around his shoulders. And when I stop to say hello, he embraces me and starts telling me about his latest projects (dozens of them) and his trips (to everywhere, he’s always travelling) and the book he’s writing and then he rummages through his briefcase to give me a business card.
But instead of one business card, he hands me a stack of around 50, scattering another 50 or so over the floor. “Here! Take them!” he says. But, Cédric, I say, I only need one, but he presses them into my hands and as he does so drops a file of papers and a small case on the ground. The commuters and weekenders have, by now, started to take notice of the commotion in front of them, though he’s oblivious as he gesticulates and exclaims and then opens up the small case to show me what’s inside. “Spiders!” he says showing me a dozen different decorated hand-made spider brooches. “I always wear one,” he says and points to his jacket, where there is an ornate bejewelled spider crawling across his lapel.
As meetings with Cédric Villani go, this is not untypical. He looks like he’s just wandered in from the 19th century, speaks English with an accent that rivals that of Hercule Poirot, and has the physical dexterity of Manuel from Fawlty Towers, but he also happens to be one of the greatest mathematicians alive, a winner of the Fields medal, mathematics’ answer to the Nobel prize, handed out every four years.

I’ve met him three times by the time I read his new book, the one he was writing when I met him at the Eurostar terminal, Birth of a Theorem: A Mathematical Adventure. He’s spoken at two TEDxObserver events we’ve held and I’ve got to watch him close-up in action, both before and after the event. Both times, he delivered brilliant, arm-flailing, passionate expositions of the beauty of mathematics and why it matters. But what really marked him out of the norm wasn’t that, or the spiders and neckerchiefs: it was his intense engagement with the world around him. He was the only speaker who listened – intently – to almost half of the other talks. And afterwards, he talked – delightedly – to random well-wishers and stray journalists and the idly curious. To anyone and everyone. He takes on all comers, equally, with an openness and interest that is vanishingly rare in public life.

But it’s not until I read his book, an odd, fascinating account that attempts to render the mystery of the moment of mathematical revelation into a narrative a layperson can understand (you know, -ish, up to a point), that I realise that this isn’t despite his mathematical brilliance; it’s actually the cornerstone of it. The theorem – a new proof that explains Landau damping, a mysterious and complex property of plasma behaviour – was the result of a collaboration with a former student, Clément Mouhot, and he presents their emails to show how they bounced ideas back and forth. And that’s the least of it: there are conferences, seminars, encounters with random academics. Even his children, or “lambikins” as he refers to them at one point, play a part in his thinking and it’s not all that much of a surprise that when I try to catch up with him, I discover he’s in Senegal, and by the time I pin him down on Skype, he’s in Cameroon. 
Read more... 

TEDxObserver - Cédric Villani

Additional resources

What goes on inside the mind of a rock-star mathematician?
Where does inspiration come from?

Birth of a Theorem: A Mathematical Adventure by Cédric Villani – review 
Cédric Villani (From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia) 

Source: The Guardian and TEDx Talks Channel (YouTube)

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