The thrill of mathematical discovery at TED 2016

18/02/2016 - 10:15

On the 16th of February Cédric Villani gave an inspiring talk on mathematics at the renowned TED conference. 

Villani tackles perplexing problems in mathematical physics, analysis and geometry with rigor, wit and a signature personal style.His Byronesque hair, colorful ascots and spider brooches have earned Cédric Villani the nickname “the Lady Gaga of Mathematics.” But this moniker has not obscured Villani’s deeper, serious mission: inspiring students to delve into the mysteries of mathematics.

Villani’s fame is based on his work resolving difficult problems of kinetic theory, for which he received the Fields Medal in 2010. His book Birth of a Theorem is an exhilarating journey into the nocturnal dilemmas of mathematicians hot on the trail of discovery.

A summary of his talk: "What do the French do better than anyone else? The top three answers might be: love, wine and whining,” says Cédric Villani. “But let me suggest a fourth one: mathematics.” In fact, Paris has more mathematicians than any other city, and France has more Fields Medal winners per inhabitant than any other country. What do the French find so sexy about math? Well, it may be abstract, but it’s certainly not dull. “It’s … about imagination,” Villani says. “It is about finding the truth.” Hidden truths permeate our world, and mathematics allows us to go beyond intuition and explore territories outside our grasp. For example, in 1673, French astronomer Jean Richer noticed that a pendulum swings slightly slower in Cayenne, in French Guiana, than in Paris. From this observation, Isaac Newton correctly deduced that the earth is flatter at the poles. Or take a more recent example: Google’s PageRank, which allows us to navigate the billions of web pages on the Internet using mathematical laws of randomness. “I believe that everybody can appreciate the thrill of mathematical research,” Villani says. “So, when you come to Paris, after you’ve tasted the great crispy baguette and macaron, please come and visit us at l’Institut Henri-Poincaré and share the mathematical dream.”

Ahhh, the French are also good at PR. We are way too humle: did you know that the math departments of Brussels already produced several internationally famous mathematicians like Ingrid Daubechies and the two Field medal winners, Pierre Deligne and Jean Bourgain. So, come and visit us!