The Lady Gaga of French Mathematicians Comes Stateside

Thomas Lin in The New Yorker:

ScreenHunter_1139 Apr. 15 15.28Cédric Villani’s arrival, one afternoon last May, at a small café off the Champs-Élysées drew glances from a good fraction of the late-lunch crowd. His shoulder-length hair was parted almost symmetrically down the middle, and he wore his usual ensemble: a three-piece pin-striped black suit, a silver pocket watch and chain, a peacock-green cravat (purchased at a costume store for actors), an overstuffed backpack, and, pinned to his lapel like a biological specimen, a custom-made spider brooch. Having just wrapped up a national-radio segment at the station next door, he was stopping for a bite on his way back to the Institut Henri Poincaré, where he serves as director.

Villani has been called the Lady Gaga of French mathematicians. After winning the Fields Medal, math’s highest honor, in 2010, for what his award citation called “proofs of nonlinear Landau damping and convergence to equilibrium for the Boltzmann equation,” he embraced a role that many other medalists have dreaded—that of mathematical ambassador, hopscotching from event to event and continent to continent, evangelizing for the discipline. “We are the most hidden of all fields,” he told me. “We are the ones who typically interact the least with the outer world. We are also the field which is most emblematic of revulsion in school.” The French filmmaker Olivier Peyon, who first met Villani while shooting his 2013 documentary “Comment J’ai Détesté les Maths” (“How I Came to Hate Math”), says that the mathematician struck him immediately as a natural proselytizer. “He was funny, very—in French, we say pédagogique,” Peyon told me. “He knew how to speak about his art, about math.”

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