Friday, August 20, 2010

French Mathematics

Two French mathematicians, Ngo Bau Chau and Cédric Villani, have been awarded the prestigious Fields Medal. The politicians and newspapers are crowing. But seriously, is there something distinctive about the way in which mathematics is taught in France to account for French overrepresentation at the highest levels of mathematics? I think the answer may be yes, and I speak with some knowledge of the subject: my Ph.D. is in math, and my thesis drew on the work of a number of great French mathematicians, including René Thom and Jean-Pierre Serre. But more important than the way in which mathematics is taught, perhaps, is its place in the French cultural pantheon. My impression, perhaps erroneous, is that mathematics is held in higher esteem in France than in most other countries, with the possible exception of Russia. The first question asked of a mathematician in France is not, What is your work good for? Abstraction is valued. Art for art's sake is a concept that is understood, if honored perhaps more in the breach than the observance. In any case, it's good to hear French mathematics talked about again as something other than the basis of financial engineering.


Kirk said...

I don't know if it's the way it's taught, but mathematics is certainly a prestige subject at the lycée and university level. It is basically the benchmark by which good students are found to go on to the best schools (which is not a good thing, in my opinion...).

Mr Punch said...

Two suggestions:

1) Following Kirk, the French educational system is of course very exam-oriented, and mathematics lends itself to testing - and in general to early identification of the standouts.

2) More broadly, as compared to say the US, France puts tremendous pressure on the young and less on the middle-aged. This would seem to favor success in fields where achievement skews young - although French historians are pretty good too.

FrédéricLN said...

Agree with the post and Kirk's as well as Mr Punch comments.

We French people do consider as obvious that two intellectual tools are - more than a basis or roots - rather the warp and weft - from which all other knowledge derives (?) - or rather, that all other knowledge can be built from these two elements: namely maths and the French language.

The Académie française unified the language; the Bourbaki group tried to unify La Mathématique. (Failed attempt).

So obviously, someone who speaks perfectly French, say Victor Hugo (but there is no world contest for this...), or someone who is acknowledged at world level for a major contribution to Mathematics, should be considered among the Greatest People of all times ;-)

(Ordinary people are of course allowed to use those bizarre things like experience and experimentation, common sense and judgment, psychology and care, creativity or feeling, storytelling and representation of things, etc.)

(Mathematicians are of course allowed to observe that algebra is so far away from numerical analysis, that many those with instant perception of geometry will find logical problems painful, and so on; they should not frighten the children and should rather keep those ideas secret).

Anonymous said...

The skew is as big as an elephant & no-one tries to hide it : in France in practically any academic level, you can be awful at French (I totally disagree with the last person's comments - look at the pitiful command of the language of today's scientists, engineers, politicians, business leaders ...), or any other humanities subject just as long as you're brilliant at maths.

Tony Lark, Neung sur Beuvron