Math is AMAZING and we have to start treating it that way
Eugenia Cheng is the scientist in residence at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and author, whose latest book is “Beyond Infinity.”
Read her opinion on why math is in need of a makeover.
I would like you to meet a friend of mine. He’s really useful. Wait. That doesn’t make him sound very interesting, does it? Or fun.
Wouldn’t it be better to say, hi, I would like you to meet a friend of mine, she’s amazing, she’s brilliant?
We’d never introduce a friend by saying they’re useful. So, why are we doing that to math? Why do we keep going on about how important it is for everyone to learn math because it’s useful? Has that ever got a young person interested in anything?
I think math is fascinating and fun. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be a mathematician. Some math began life without any sign of practicality. Like, babies, they’re not exactly useful.
For example, Internet cryptography. It means we can do online shopping, online banking, and send e-mails. This comes from some number theory that existed just for its own sake 300 years ago. Most of engineering, medicine, lab science, weather forecasts and technology depends on calculus.
Calculus depends on irrational numbers that the Egyptians started wondering about thousands of years ago. The icosahedron is a satisfyingly symmetrical shape that was dreamt up by ancient Greek mathematicians.
French President Emmanuel Macron has promised his country a revolution—and after a comfortable victory in the parliamentary elections, he is well-positioned to deliver. Macron’s brand-new centrist and reformist party, La République En Marche!, won 308 of the 577 seats in the National Assembly yesterday. Almost half of his delegates are women; most have never been active in politics.
What the upset will mean for French science is unclear. Macron has promised to raise the country’s research spending from 2.2% of gross domestic product to 3% and give universities more autonomy. He aims to make France a world leader in climate and environmental science and has promised €30 million to help attract foreign scientists using a website named “Make Our Planet Great Again.” Most French scientists were relieved that Macron defeated far-right candidate Marine Le Pen last month, but reforms in science and higher education are likely to meet resistance from leftist groups.
Science talked to one of En Marche!’s new National Assembly members, mathematician and Fields medalist Cédric Villani, 43, who won 69% of the vote in a constituency south of Paris. Villani, who heads the Henri Poincaré Institute in the capital, has won a book prize from the American Mathematical Society in 2014 and joined the prestigious Pontifical Academy of Sciences last year. Frequent media appearances over the past decade—and his trademark silk ascot and spider brooch—have made him one of France’s best-known scientists. (He also gave a TED talk explaining what’s so sexy about math.)
Q: Why did you run, and why with Macron?
A: I never recognized myself in any national political movement. But Macron’s party is enthusiastically pro-European, which has become very rare among national parties in France. It also went very much against the old political tradition of systematically attacking opponents during the presidential election; instead it promoted benevolence, pragmatism, and progress. And the party welcomed nonpoliticians with professional expertise.
Q: What do you hope to achieve in the National Assembly—in general, and for science?
A: I hope to participate in making France feel confident again—in its government, in its own abilities, and in the future. As to science, that’s a complex ecosystem, and the issues in France are well known. The efficiency of the competitive research funding agencies is one issue. How to reward researchers with significant achievements is another. How to organize the governance of universities. University entrance selection. The ratio of public and private investment in R&D. Patenting scientific discoveries and bringing products to market. And so on. There isn’t one particular topic I want to be associated with; I intend to push for the improvement of the science system as a whole.
Q: Do you have concrete measures in mind?
A: There is no simple solution. I would advocate better scientific steering of the National Research Agency. I’m in favor of awarding some researchers a special status, based on international evaluations, that comes with a reduced teaching load. On university governance, I favor relaxing the laws and making them less complicated. And universities should do a better job of informing students on the career outcomes of the degrees they offer.
But in doing this, my goal isn’t just to serve science. My goal is to serve society with scientific expertise as a tool. Currently, scientific knowledge within French political circles is close to zero. It’s important that some scientific expertise is present in the National Assembly.
I hope to participate in making France feel confident again—in its government, in its own abilities, and in the future.
Q: Part of the scientific community has yet to be convinced that Macron is really interested in science.
A: We will see. He sent a strong first signal by according science policy its own ministry, by nominating a very competent minister, Frédérique Vidal, and giving her a broad mandate. Her nomination was welcomed by everybody, including the most radical faction of the scientific community. Macron’s welcome to foreign climate scientists was important as well. He is a president who believes science is part of global politics. It is important that scientists step in and become part of the political process. Now, if there is enough money in the system, a good balance between basic and applied research, and good governance—in other words, if the system works—chances are that the scientific community will be happy.
Q: Is this the end of your career in mathematics?
A: My research essentially stopped when I became institute director in 2009 and started to get more involved with the media. Now, I will leave the directorship. Often in life when you want to gain a new experience, you need to put something aside. But the current political situation in France is so unique and extraordinary that it is more than worth it.