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Going Gaga for Math

Going Gaga for Math

By Niamh Ni Mhaoileoin



Because the study of math is in decline, and this Frenchman may have the flair to fix that.

By Niamh Ni Mhaoileoin

Mathematicians tend to conjure images of ill-fitting pants and pen protectors, but one fashionable genius is changing that equation, at the same time his theories are adding efficiency to global industries.

Cédric Villani is among the modern world’s greatest mathematical minds. But he makes a point of dressing like a 19th-century aristocrat. Think three-piece suits, frilly shirts and ribbon-like cravats. His style, combined with his long hair; tall, rake-thin frame and collection of giant spider brooches have earned him the moniker “The Lady Gaga of mathematics.”

In 2010, he was awarded the Fields Medal — math’s Nobel Prize — for his work on mathematical physics, particularly in relation to gas dynamics and entropy. Villani is providing answers to centuries-old problems and connecting important strands of physics, math and economics in the process. He is currently a professor at the University of Lyon and director of one of France’s leading scientific research centers, the Institut Henri Poincaré, not to mention a husband and father of two.

The discipline, he believes, needs a popular hero. And he’s willing to be just that.

donald by chalkboard filled with written numbers,math problems

Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land

Put together the Fields with the flash, and you get a brilliant man trying to make math appealing to the masses.

How? He’s everywhere — from multiple TED talks and lectures to an appearance in a documentary. He’s even working on a mathematical comic with a well-known French artist in a bid to open children’s eyes to the wonders of math. As of next year, Villani’s book, Living Theorem, will be available in English. The autobiographical story “tells you what it is to be a mathematician, emotionally.” It describes, for example, “being up at two in the morning with your tenth cup of tea and music that has been going on and on,” trying to break through some seemingly impenetrable mathematical barrier. (His schedule isn’t fixed yet, but Villani predicts a book tour in the U.S., U.K. and other English-speaking countries.)

Born in the small city of Brive-la-Gaillarde, Villani comes from an intellectual family that counts philosophers, composers and artists among its ranks. Education was prioritized at home, but with two literature teachers for parents, he’s not sure where his fascination with math came from. “I really can’t say; I just found it fun,” Villani told OZY from his office in Paris. “I can recall a cartoon about Donald Duck in the land of mathematics, and I liked this,” he recalls in rapid, thickly accented English.

Graduating at the top of his high-school class, the aspiring mathematician won a place at the École Normale Supérieure, France’s most prestigious university, which claims to have produced more Fields Medal winners than any other institution in the world. Villani studied under one of them, Pierre-Louis Lions, an early source of inspiration, but his time at the école was also significant socially. He credits interactions with other students for transforming him from a “shy, kind of nerdy” student into the director of the entertainment club and president of the students association.

There is a story behind the spider brooches, but in true (and confounding) French style, Villani refuses to share it.

It was at university that Villani began to develop his signature style, too. After seeing an ad for frilled shirts in a Metro station, he traded his comic book T-shirts for increasingly flamboyant fashion statements. There is a story behind the spider brooches, but in true (and confounding) French style, Villani refuses to share it.

As for mathematical heroes, Villani looks to John Nash, Alan Turing, Ludwig Boltzmann, James Clerk Maxwell and Mark Kac, most of whom suffered from being socially marginalized.

Turing was prosecuted for being homosexual and later killed himself; Boltzmann is believed to have suffered from bipolar disorder; Kac was a Polish Jew whose parents and brother were killed in the Holocaust; and Nash, famously portrayed by Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, has battled schizophrenia for most of his life. Villani explains that he admires them because they were all “very innovative in applying mathematics to another scientific field, which had not been done before.”

Villani doesn’t have much interest in letting mathematics suffer that same marginal fate. The discipline, he believes, needs a popular hero. And he’s willing to be just that.

In layman’s terms, Villani studies how and why particles disperse and become disordered, based on an 18th-century equation representing the behavior of gas when it is released into a room. His innovation was applying his finding — that entropy never decreases but sometimes speeds up or slows down — to the practical field of “optimal transport theory.” His work can therefore be used to determine the most efficient way to transport resources, such as ore, from a mine to a number of factories.

There is a way to present things so that people tell you, ’Oh, I feel so stupid and ignorant in front of you,’ and there’s another way to tell things and people will say, ’Oh, I feel so intelligent when I’m listening to you.’

— Cédric Villani

These days, however, the professor is exploring a different field altogether. “[For] the past four years, since the Fields Medal, my main work hasn’t been in research but in outreach activities,” he says. Villani hopes to return one day to study gas dynamics, entropy and kinetic theory, but he believes his time is currently better spent trying to popularize math worldwide.

He’s trying to reverse the decline of math, which is noticeably suffering in the West. According to the National Math and Science Initiative, just 42 percent of American fourth-grade students and 35 percent of eighth-graders performed at or above the proficient level in mathematics in 2013. (Villani’s colleagues are grateful that someone is speaking out on their behalf, recognizing that “someone has to do it.”)

For some, it may be hard to reconcile one of math’s greatest minds being used for marketing. But Villani’s decision to step off track after receiving a Fields is not unique. A 2013 study found that Fields Medalists’ productivity often dropped after their medals were awarded. This trend would no doubt have frustrated John Charles Fields, who set up the medal to provide recipients with “encouragement for further achievement.”

That said, Villani has hardly been idle as math’s ambassador. And he wouldn’t call it just PR. For him, it’s about disowning elitism in favor of communication: During a talk in California last year, Villani summed up his trouble with the gulf separating the native math-lovers from the rest of us: “There is a way to present things so that people will come up and tell you, ’Oh, I feel so stupid and ignorant in front of you,’ and there’s another way to tell things and people will say, ’Oh, I feel so intelligent when I’m listening to you.’ And then you know you’re doing the right stuff … because you’re reflecting the light coming from the beauty of mathematics.” 

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