Inside the mind of a mathematician

While French mathematician Cedric Villani makes a fashion statement with his hand-crafted spider brooches, silk bows, fine suits and tousled hair, it is his flair for mathematics for which he is world-renowned.

Winner of the Fields Medal, often described as the Nobel Prize in mathematics, awarded every four years to mathematicians under 40, Villani believes it is a subject that elicits excitement contrary to yawns and his uncurbed enthusiasm can infect the least scientifically inclined of us. “Mathematics is a journey that must be shared, and by sharing our own journey with others, we, together, can change the world,” he says.

To the 43-year-old mathematics professor at the University of Lyon, France, geometry is more than the sum of equations and solutions; it is an exploration driven by curiosity upon which we can all embark. Villani is indeed sharing with us the accessible beauty of his speciality, evident in the title of his TED talk last year, “What’s so sexy about math?”

From predicting the movements of the chaotic atoms surrounding us to generating data from a mass of online content, mathematics serves as the voice of reason in a riotous world. As Villani puts it, “Through the power of mathematics, we can explore the uncertain, the counterintuitive, the invisible; we can reveal order and beauty, and at times transform theories into practical objects, things or solutions that you can feel, touch or use.”

Borrowing the black cat analogy to describe his process, Villani describes himself as a mathematician who is a blind man in a dark room, searching for a black cat that isn’t even there. Despite the frustration and self-doubt he inevitably experiences on the hunt for answers to equations, the exhilaration that comes with hitting the jackpot makes it all worthwhile.

Villani had his light bulb moment when Pierre-Louis Lions, his doctoral advisor at Paris Dauphine University, sparked his imagination by introducing him to the Boltzmann Equation at their first meeting. He went on to devote a whole decade to the equation, a complex mathematical theorem that examines minute changes in the movement of gas particles, which he believes shapes our understanding of the world we live in, from quantum theory to astronomy.

Like the spider brooch perched snugly on his tailored jacket, Cedric Villani will keep spinning his web so that people from all over the world will be caught up in the euphoria of mathematics.