Cédric Villani is at the pinnacle of the math world. Winner of the Fields Medal—widely seen as the mathematicians’ equivalent of the Nobel Prize—the French scholar is an acknowledged giant in solving partial differential equations.
But unlike other star mathematicians, he’s also become an international celebrity for his storytelling and his unique fashion sensibility.
Villani’s TED talk last year in Vancouver, entitled “What’s so sexy about math?”, generated more than 1.4 million page views.
He’s been featured on BBC broadcaster Brady Haran’s Numberphile program on YouTube. And in Paris where he’s the director of the Institut Henri Poincaré, he’s often stopped in the street by people who instantly recognize the man who looks like he walked right out of an 19th-century period piece.
Every day, Villani wears a three-piece suit, a colourful velvet cravat, pocket watch, centre-parted shoulder-length hair, and large spider brooch on his left lapel. He refuses to reveal why he wears a brooches, maintaining an aura of mystery as he travels the world promoting the benefits of mathematics.
When the Georgia Straight contacted Villani by phone in advance of his May 2 lecture for the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, he was ready to discuss why he believes math can be as pleasurable as sex.
He was also prepared to talk about why there is big money in mathematics and how mathematicians can help the public understand and address climate change. But he was also keen to talk about the French presidential election.
That’s because Villani has been a high-profile supporter of centrist Emmanuel Macron, who came out on top in the first round of voting on April 23. Macron is heavily favoured to defeat hard-right candidate Marine Le Pen in the run-off election on May 7.
“I know the election is not won yet, but this first one was extremely uncertain while the second round is much less uncertain in my view and in the view of most people,” Villani said.
He also revealed that he’s considering running for Parliament with Macron’s fledgling party, En Marche. That’s because Macron has said that he loves Europe rather than being suspicious of it, and Macron dispenses with the left-right dichotomy of politics, preferring policies oriented toward the country’s future.
This includes an aggressively pro-environmental stance that includes doubling France’s solar-power and wind-power capacity by 2022.
“Many, many people who thought that politics was not for them were very excited to see the appearance of this new kind of movement with Macron,” Villani said.
He added that he and many others also appreciated Macron’s message that people don’t have to be professional politicians to run for office.
As for Le Pen, Villani accused her of advancing an “inword notion of France and detaching it from the rest of the world”. And he claimed that Le Pen’s fiscal policies would multiply France’s debt by five times.
“It is a program that is out of this world, given the amount of things that she promised,” Villani said. “It would mean chaos [and] confusion for five years.”
When asked why he so infatuated with mathematics, the philosophical Villani replied that it’s not possible to explain love. He said that a person can just appreciate the quest and take delight in unravelling mysteries.
“Mathematics is about finding the deep rules of the universe and explaining them to the whole world,” he said. Then he quipped “and who does this except the French?”
In fact, some of the greatest mathematicians in history—including René Descartes, Blaise Pascal, and Pierre de Fermat—were French. According to Villani, there are more mathematicians in Paris than in any other city in the world.
“I don’t believe it is an issue of language but it is an issue of culture,” he said. “The French culture likes the abstraction and the rational thinking.”
Some like to think of mathematics as a language because it can convey a great deal of information in easily digestible ways. Villani, however, noted that while languages are learned innately with no need for training, this isn’t the case with mathematics.
“Neuroscience has shown that it uses different brain areas,” he said. “But you can use mathematics to represent and re-create bits of the world and phenomena around us.”