#edbookfest: Cédric Villani: “In history, one surprising idea can change everything.”

birth of a theoremCédric Villani – Taking Maths into the Mainstream – 15th August 2015.

Mathematics isn’t necessarily synonymous with fun, shall we say, but it didn’t stop Cedric Villani – ‘the rockstar mathematician’ – chatting to a totally packed house. His book Birth of a Theorem gives insight into the daily life of a mathematician, and it is, he notes, not quite so glamorous, and involves a lot of sitting around thinking “How the hell am I going to solve this?”

That thinking, actually, isn’t as linear as people believe. It’s a bit of a jumble that takes you to a point that you think “Yes!”, realise it’s actually crap, repeat a few times, get to your conclusion and discover it had actually been done fifty years before. But on they persevere.

Once you’ve got it, convincing your peers can be the next issue. Historically, he notes that the man who linked hygiene as important for surgery was considered crazy for the mere suggestion.

“In history,” notes Cedric, “one surprising idea can change everything.”

He question how ideas are born. One story he pulls is someone who was so disgusted with his failures that he took a break and simply walked. The idea came to him in one distinct flash of clarity; it always happens in things totally unrelated to the project at hand.

“You’re not supposed to understand any of it!” explains Cedric, in regards to the mathematic equations that pepper his book. He had never thought of writing such an impressionistic book, “Culture participates in a way that it difficult to pinpoint.” His editor didn’t care a heck about the math, he says, but the daily life of a mathematician.

Maths, strangely, “is like Columbo. It’s not just the outcome, but how you get there.” He thinks this is a metaphor for science too. Returning to that flash of inspiration on a failure-fuelled trip, it’s often the story that inspires people more than the outcome.

He’s questioned by an audience member on the peer review process and open access. “It’s a tricky debate,” he concedes. “We’re still mainly living with an old fashioned system and can’t figure out how to reply.” The whole process is full of tension and overburden, but mathematics has been relatively spared, as it hasn’t accelerated quite like other fields. It’s a constant battle: publishers like Elsevier say people are getting more, so must pay more; Universities say it costs publishers less to do, so they should charge less. It’s a cycle that causes a lot of frustration.

There is some chat on maths as creative and collaborative, and how to successfully teach it in schools where it’s not a particularly popular subject. There’s no set way he can suggest, but he notes: “In the end, in every learning process there has to be some element of pain!”

He concludes, “Mathematics is the only science where the truth remains eternal.”


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