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Cédric, the Math maverick

Do mathematicians solve math problems all day? You will be surprised with what Cédric Villani, an award winning French mathematician, has to say!

I assume mathematicians to be quiet figures working silently, punching and crunching numbers. And they are probably reserved in nature.

But my perception totally changed after meeting Cédric Villani, a French mathematician who won the Fields Medal – an equivalent to a Nobel Prize in mathematics – in 2010.

I managed to have a quick chat with Cédric after the Global Young Scientist Summit Youth Forum, held at the Science Centre last week.

Out of the other panellists at the forum, Cédric caught my attention almost instantly with his non-conformist sartorial choices. The 40-year-old is often pictured in a cravat and a three-piece suit.

CÉDRIC SPEAKING DURING THE FORUM
PHOTO CREDIT: SCIENCE CENTRE SINGAPORE
His mannerisms also reminded me of several pop culture icons: he had the wardrobe and hairstyle of fictional character Willy Wonka and the eccentricity of Captain Jack Sparrow. As he spoke, he often punctuated the air with his gestures.

I got him to address several misconceptions people have about mathematics.
"One of the most common misconceptions is that it is an abstract game with no relation to reality. Nothing is more false than that. It is abstract, but mathematics is inspired by the world and designed to solve problems – including practical problems," Cédric said.

When I told him I once thought that mathematicians often worked on solutions for complex math problems, he said that mathematicians do not sit all day trying to solve or compute problems. Instead, they discuss and exchange results of their respective studies.

During the forum, he drew many laughs from the audience with his candid answers and anecdotes about his career as a mathematician.

He mused about having to tackle countless emails in a typical day, and the joys of being as free as a bird since he is not confined to a lab.

CÉDRIC TALKING TO STUDENTS AFTER THE FORUM
PHOTO CREDIT: SCIENCE CENTRE SINGAPORE
I was surprised to find that Mathematics was not one of his favourite subjects in school initially.

Cédric said: "I really loved Biology in school, but I was better in Mathematics. I found that it was like solving games. You have the thrill of searching and searching [for answers]."

In 2011, Cédric was invited by TEDx to give a talk about the romance of mathematics. He took about 10 years to complete a particular study. I asked him how he dealt with the long period of uncertainty.
Cédric replied: "One of the key things in a mathematical project is that you are never working on one goal or result.  You may have a final goal, but usually you have many intermediate steps and goals. Sometimes when you're working, you tend to find something else that you did not expect and that becomes very interesting."

Before we wrapped our short interview, I wondered whether his statement look was a way of proving to the world that mathematicians are not inherently dull. Well, he was busy adjusting his spider brooch on the left lapel of his jacket minutes before our interview.

ALWAYS DRESSED WITH HIS CRAVAT AND SPIDER BROOCH
PHOTO CREDIT: ENPC.FR
With a laugh, he quelled my doubts.

Cédric said: "I've kept the same dress code for the past 20 years, so it really held no particular purpose. When I was 20 years old, before I became the president of the Students' Association, maybe it was a way to look cool or to impress girls. It was [all about] experimenting. I try this and that and oh, that's me. Good."

Tags: Interviews