A whiz at maths - and a polymath

Professor Villani speaking at a plenary lecture at the Global Young Scientists Summit at SUTD on Tuesday. On his lapel is a spider brooch from Niger in sub-Saharan Africa, one of many specimens in his collection. Prof Villani was a 2010 recipient of the Fields Medal, regarded by many as the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in mathematics.

Fields Medal winner loves metal bands, spiders and promoting a culture of curiosity

One would find it hard to imagine seeing a lone Frenchman with long wavy hair walking around Marina Bay in the searing noon heat in his vintage three-piece suit, his inquisitive senses taking in all that the Lion City has to offer.

Even less likely is the amused passer-by to suspect that this man - looking not unlike the 19th-century physicist Ludwig Boltzmann - was in 2010 a recipient of the Fields Medal, regarded by many as the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in mathematics.

However, when The Straits Times caught up with Professor Cedric Villani, 42, on Monday, mathematics was not on his mind. In fact, he was looking forward to an evening concert by the Finnish symphonic metal band Nightwish.

The French newspaper Le Parisien had even assigned him to write a review of the concert. Never mind that he was due to give a plenary lecture at the Global Young Scientists Summit at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) the next day, invited back by popular demand after his last appearance in 2013.

The summit, with the theme of "advancing science, creating technologies for a better world", ends today, concluding a five-day "boot camp" of stimulating talks and discussions between young researchers and leading scientists from all over the world.

Looking none the worse for wear when he finally made it to SUTD's Lecture Theatre 1, Prof Villani proceeded to reduce the audience to fits of laughter, asking them to "close your eyes and think of all the billions and billions of particles around you which are bumping into you, bumping against each other, like crazy cows".

That is more drearily known as the kinetic theory of gases. Yet he proved mathematically that an unusual state of matter known as plasma does not obey some of the rules of this universal theory, earning him the Fields Medal for his work.

Other vivid examples in his lecture bore witness to the power of beautiful things in inspiring the mind of the mathematician. Like the beautiful and complex shapes of corals in the sea that actually follow very simple mathematical rules.

Or that Albert Einstein did not care about the "applications" of general relativity when he choreographed the ballet of mathematical equations that threatened the venerable laws of Isaac Newton.

Yet the Global Positioning System would flower from those tremendous equations, forever changing the way humans find their way through crowded cities or across the continents and oceans.

Prize winners like Prof Villani are sometimes intimidated by all the ardent expectation of scientific ambassadorship and dismayed by the time and energy taken away from their research. But the intrepid Frenchman rose to the occasion.

Appointed director of the Institut Henri Poincare in Paris the year before he was bestowed the Fields Medal, he took time from his personal research to devote more of it towards providing administrative support for visiting researchers exploring maths-related topics.

"Meeting of ideas often comes from meeting of people," he said, explaining the importance of an institute "devoted entirely to making people meet".

He also gives talks overseas to expound the beauty and value of maths and science to audiences from Asia to Africa, helping to propagate the culture of curiosity and creativity so vital to humanity.

As for the frustration that sometimes bubbles up when he is left out of front-line research, he said "it is much better to be frustrated than to feel bored".

One can tell that boredom has a hard time finding Prof Villani, who is married with two children and used to play competitive table tennis.

Before he left for the evening's concert, he introduced us to his giant toy spider, one the size of those bird-eating tarantulas found in South America, crawling on the lapel of his jacket.

Just one of many specimens from his collection of spider brooches, it was made for him by a man in Niger in sub-Saharan Africa. The piece has shiny metal legs radiating from a wire frame encasing a rough-edged piece of black rock.

The rock came from a place known for its wealth of dinosaur fossils - a homage to the theory of evolution enshrined in Charles Darwin's On The Origin Of Species, the book whose last line had inspired the name of the concert that night: Endless Forms Most Beautiful.

Drawing connections between seemingly far-flung subjects is a hallmark of Prof Villani's.

As a doctoral student in the 1990s, he derived intellectual nourishment from five different advisers contributing a delectable buffet of insights that deepened and broadened his understanding of the subject.

But when asked about emulating one of his heroes, the one after whom his institution was named, he is realistic about the futility of one person knowing everything in our information age.

"There is only one Poincare," he said of the mathematician from the late 19th century, "and he was the last mathematician to master the whole of mathematics."

But that does not stop Prof Villani from trying to embrace the world's endless forms most beautiful.


This article was first published on JAN 22, 2016.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.