Few of the 420 seats of the magnificent Amphithéâtre Marguerite de Navarre were empty when Claire Voisin performed the ceremony marking her entry to the “most prestigious institution of the French university” system, the 486-year old Collège de France. Jean-Pierre Serre, whose work was amply cited by Voisin in her hour-long account of the branches of complex geometry — analytic, Kähler, and algebraic — sat in the middle of the front row, together with past and present Professors of the Collège. The talk was systematic, organized, and comprehensive, like Voisin’s introductory two-part book on Hodge Theory and Complex Algebraic Geometry: not a dinner party explanation by any means, it was “a rather complete tour of the subject from the beginning to the present” in the words of the review in the Bulletin of the AMS by Herbert Clemens, who noted “the break-neck pace of Voisin’s clear, complete, but ‘take no prisoners’ exposition.” Serre, who turns 90 (!) this September, was alert as always; colleagues to my left and right in the tenth row were happy with the pace and the content but speculated that the distinguished medieval historians and classicists in Serre’s row were already dozing off by the time Voisin defined complex structures in her second slide (my apologies for the blurry photos)
and in any case long before she concluded her lecture with an allusion to her work on the generalized Hodge conjecture.
Readers of MWA will not be surprised to learn that the lecture was followed by a sumptuous champagne reception. The new Professor has so many friends and admirers that the petits fours ran out well ahead of schedule, but there was (just barely) enough champagne for the jubilant crowd. For Paris mathematics, the inauguration was undoubtedly the social event of this (very rainy) season.
I was wondering who would replace Don Zagier when he vacated his Chair in Number Theory a few years ago, so — as always in these situations — I consulted the best-informed of my colleagues. He told me that no one had yet been named, but that it had been decided to create a Chair in Algebraic Geometry. It was obvious for whom such a Chair was intended, but the formal announcement took some time to appear, and I was surprised to see that the press took no notice of what in the English-speaking world would certainly be considered an event of historic magnitude: the naming of the first woman professor of mathematics to the most prestigious position in the French academy. Journalists had no doubt chosen to heed Voisin’s own preemptive and scathing critique of this approach to “diversity”:
L’idée qu’augmenter le nombre de femmes à l’Académie des sciences aurait un impact sur la désaffection des femmes pour certains domaines des sciences est tout simplement grotesque. D’abord parce que l’Académie des sciences n’intéresse personne et ensuite parce que le choix de faire une carrière scientifique ne repose que sur les aspirations intellectuelles et le talent, et non sur des considérations mondaines. Personnellement, je supporte de moins en moins d’être passée en quelques années du statut de mathématicienne à celui de femme-mathématicienne, et de subir l’oppression grandissante de l’obsession paritaire, transportée à grand bruit par les médias.
Je souhaite que mon statut de femme, qui me plaît beaucoup, reste du domaine privé, et que l’évaluation et la reconnaissance de mon travail ne se trouvent pas polluées par la prise en compte de ce statut (ce qui est insultant en général : être une femme n’est pas un handicap !).
Je souhaite aussi ne jamais devenir Madame Quota, et surtout que cela n’arrive pas à mes filles. A supposer qu’on ne puisse pas parler d’autre chose que de la fameuse parité, serait-il possible de mentionner que les quotas sont à différents égards (dont certains non mentionnés ci-dessus) une menace pour les femmes scientifiques ?
Voisin’s point of view is rarely expressed so forcefully, but it is widely shared in France. When I arrived from the United States in the early 1990s, it was disorienting, to say the least, to hear male mathematicians routinely making comments about the physical appearance of their female colleagues, behind their backs; but I also heard female mathematicians commenting (appreciatively or not) about the looks of their male colleagues. There’s much more to be said, but I learned quickly enough that if I opened my mouth on this (or any other) subject I would be accused of being an “anglo-saxon” — and it was futile to brandish my Beowulf and point out that this status would be denied me in any actual English-speaking country.
After an hour of catching up with long-lost acquaintances I managed to push my way through the crowd of well-wishers to congratulate the newly-named Professor. I hope she will not hold it against me that I have briefly extracted her “status of woman” from the private sphere. She told me that she has a copy of MWA but that she hadn’t yet found the time to read it. I advised her to skip ahead to Part II, and maybe chapter 4, which is where she would find the best jokes, and by all means avoid reading the boring chapter 3! That’s the advice I give everyone, but after taking a look yesterday at his comment on David Roberts’s Google+ blog I feel I ought to make an exception for Urs Schreiber, who is specifically advised to reread the discussion of tradition-based practices on pp. 74-77 and to decide whether that discussion didn’t anticipate his objections. I will have more to say on this topic when I comment on Roberts’s review for the Australian Mathematical Society.