Cedric Villani: Scientists are trained to solve difficult problems

They call him the “Lady Gaga of the mathematicians”. And he does not really mind. French mathematician Cedric Villani has become a bit of a pop icon after obtaining the Fields Medal in 2010. This highly prestigious award is the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for Mathematics; except that it is awarded every four years. And it is only destined to people younger than 40. Incidentally, until this year, no woman had won it.

Cedric Villani’s look stands out. He has a high sense of fashion, displaying great taste. He always speaks with a soft tone. These combined elements may lead people into thinking he is like an unreachable divinity. Quite on the contrary, when EuroScientist met him in Copenhagen during ESOF 2014, few minutes before his keynote lecture, he proved to have a very warm personality. He revealed a concern for people who approach him and make them feel at ease, your humble journalist included.

“I have spent all my life in trying to do my best to please people, and to share subjects that are important to me. It has to do with empathy,” he says. “I try to answer every single email I receive because I think that the poor guy who wrote me will be so unhappy if I do not.”

Cedric Villani is not afraid of crossing boundaries and be active outside academia. He was recently involved in the committee supporting the socialist Anne Hidalgo as mayor of Paris—she won. And he was also very moved by how his book Living Theorem was acclaimed. “I received hundreds of emails! Once a person told me that my book changed their life,” he explains, still touched.

He is also a member of the Science and Technology Advisory Council appointed by the former EU President Barroso. He believes scientists are always good councillors. Even though, they sometimes become bad politicians, he says, like what happened to Pierre-Simon Laplace who only lasted six weeks as Interior Minister under French emperor Napoleon. This can be explained by the fact that “Mathematicians and scientists are trained to solve complicated problems. And, in politics, you often have to solve complicated problems. The hard part is to make a balance between the abstract solution and the practical reality.”

Timescales might be problematic too: “In science if you can’t find a solution, you wait and wait, may be months or years. If you run an institute, like the Institute Henri Poincaré, which I am the director of, if you wait one month to take a solution maybe your institute is dead”.

Featured image credit: PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE via Flickr

Luca Tancredi Barone

Luca is an Italian science journalist based in Barcelona, Spain. He has extensive experience working for magazines, newspapers and radio. He also currently works in the communication team of the Institute for Research in BIomedicine. He writes for different media in English, Spanish and Italian.
Luca Tancredi Barone

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