The everywhere man


Is Cédric Villani trying to stop time by sheer force of concentration — as Joshua commanded the sun to stand still over Gibeon — hoping to squeeze a few more meetings and public appearances into his already optimally packed schedule?  This is my photo of the image hanging in front of his office at the Institut Henri Poincaré in Paris.  I took it more than a month ago in order to illustrate an intended post to announce the publication of my review of the outrageously photogenic Villani’s Birth of a Theorem in the American Mathematical Monthly.  The review is now available online, in the December 2015 issue, and I can finally make the photo public.  My review may provide context:

Within a year of receiving the Fields Medal in Hyderabad in 2010, Villani was being seen and heard and read with such frequency — on TV talk shows, on the radio, in the pages of Le Monde and weekly magazines, on committees large and small, meeting with parliamentarians and the head of the main French employer’s federation (MEDEF) and with stand-up comic Frank Dubosc, considered by some the “worst French actor of the 2000s” — that one had to assume he had mastered the dark art of applying optimal transport — the title of the nearly 1,000-page-long book that helped establish his reputation — to the problem of maximizing the number of public events that can be attended in a fixed interval.

You can call me self-congratulatory  — it has already been done, in the pages of the same American Mathematical Monthly — but I am inordinately, almost obscenely pleased with the way my review of Villani’s book turned out.  I managed to establish a tone at the beginning and sustain it for over 2000 words, something I don’t find at all easy; and I believe the tone fits the book under review.   The review is overwhelmingly positive, by the way, but since it’s mostly behind a paywall and the praise doesn’t get started until the second page, after the free preview, here is my conclusion:

By breaking with so many conventions — of pacing and chronology, of separation of stylistic registers, of the neat border between the subjective and the objective — and by demonstrating at all times a keenly aware complicity with the reader’s perception of the unfolding narrative, [Villani] has created a new literary model that has revitalized the genre of the mathematical memoir. It is to be hoped that the genre never recovers its former placidity.

Not that Villani needs my praise.  Between the submission of my review and its publication he added an appointment to the enigmatically-named High Level Group of Scientific Advisors of the European Commission Scientific Advice Mechanism to the list of his public responsibilities.   My review should have mentioned that this list already included membership since 2014 in the Conseil stratégique de la recherche, a body that submits proposals to the French Prime Minister on the “grandes orientations” of scientific research and evaluates their implementation.

Nevertheless, he, or at least his portrait, finds time to greet arriving passengers at Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris:


I find it intriguing that Villani was chosen to represent French “recipes” whereas Hélène Darroze, an actual chef, represents “Creative star(s)” (three from Michelin, and my apologies for the blurry picture):


You’ll also find designer Philippe Starck and — I’ve forgotten the rest, you’ll have to fly to Paris to see for yourselves.

Villani’s attachment to recipes, both as a metaphor for mathematics and in their own right, is in evidence in his segment in Ekaterina Eremenko’s Colors of Math, where he judges a pastry contest (really!).  The film’s original Russian title is Чувственная математика, which literally means “sensual mathematics,” and Villani is chosen, or more likely chose, to represent the sense of TASTE.   An earlier post already pointed to MWA‘s failure to investigate metaphors that don’t fit the trifunctional framework, as one of two things wrong with the book:

…the trifunctional theory clearly reflects a society organized around the leading roles of men (in spiritual, military, and productive matters).  Could MWA have focused on metaphors corresponding to female roles in the traditional division of labor?

The post went on to mention a number of possibilities, including the metaphoric use of the word ingredients in describing how proofs are put together.  Villani’s “recipes” are in this spirit — I think he even uses the word ingredients in Colors of Math — and in this regard Villani can also be considered to have transcended phallogocentrism.

(By the way, if you think my review, or MWA, is self-congratulatory, I’m sure the American Mathematical Monthly would appreciate your feedback.  Also if you think otherwise, of course.)


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