Cedric Villani’s autobiography

I have just read Cédric Villani’s autobiographical book ‘Théorème Vivant’. I gave the German translation of the book to Eva as a present. I thought it might give her some more insight into what it is like to be a mathematician and give her some fortitude in putting up with a mathematician as a husband. Since I had not read the book before I decided to read it in parallel. I preferred to read the original and so got myself that. With hindsight I do not think it made so much difference that I read it in French instead of German. I think that the book is useful for giving non-experts a picture of the life of a mathematician (and not just that of a mathematician who is as famous as Villani has become). For this I believe that it is useful that the book contains some pieces of mathematical text which are incomprehensible for the lay person and some raw TeX source-code. I think that they convey information even in the absence of an understanding of the content. On the other hand, this does require a high level of tolerance on the part of the reader. Fortunately Eva was able to show this tolerance and I think she did enjoy the book and learn something more about mathematics and mathematicians.

For me the experience was of course different. The central theme of the book is a proof of Villani and Clement Mouhot of the existence of Landau damping, a phenomenon in plasma physics. I have not tried to enter into the details of that proof but it is a subject which is relatively close to things I used to work on in the past and I was familiar with the concept of Landau damping a long time ago. I even invested quite a lot of time into the related phenomenon of the Jeans instability in astrophysics, unfortunately without significant results. Thus I had some relation to the mathematics. It is also the case that I know many of the people mentioned in the book personally. Sometimes when Villani mentions a person without revealing their name I know who is meant. As far as I remember the first time I met Villani was at a conference in the village of Anogia in Crete in the summer of 2001. At that time he struck me as the number one climber of peaks of technical difficulty in the study of the Boltzmann equation. I do not know if at that time he already dressed in the eccentric way he does today. I do not remember anything like that.

For me the book was pleasant to read and entertaining and I can recommend it to mathematicians and non-mathematicians. If I ask myself what I really learned from the book in the end then I am not sure. One thing it has made me think of is how far I have got away from mainstream mathematics. A key element of the book is that the work described there got Villani a Fields medal, the most prestigious of mathematical prizes. These days the work of most Fields medallists is on things to which I do not have the slightest relation. Villani was the last exception to that rule. Of course this is a result of the general fact that communication between different mathematical specialities is so hard. The Fields medal is awarded at the International Congress of Mathematicians which takes place every four years. That conference used to be very attractive for me but now I have not been to one since that in 2006 in Madrid and I imagine that I will not go to another. That one was marked by the special excitement surrounding Perelman’s refusal of the Fields medal which he was offered for his work on the Poincaré conjecture. Another sign of the change in my orientation is that I am no longer even a member of the American Mathematical Society, probably the most important such society in the world. I will continue to follow my dreams, whatever they may be. Villani is also following his dreams. I knew that he had gone into politics, becoming a member of parliament. I was surprised to learn that he has recently become a candidate for the next election to become mayor of Paris.

One Response to “Cedric Villani’s autobiography”

  1. Anacronopedator Says:

    I also read some time ago the French version. Indeed I think it succeeds in transmitting a bit what science is…

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