Since Stan Ulam is buried in Cimetière du Montparnasse, next to CREST, Andrew and I paid his grave a visit on a sunny July afternoon. Among elaborate funeral constructions, the Aron family tomb is sober and hidden behind funeral houses. It came as a surprise to me to discover that Ulam had links with France to the point of him and his wife being buried in Ulam’s wife family vault. Since we were there, we took a short stroll to see Henri Poincaré’s tomb in the Poincaré-Boutroux vault (missing Henri’s brother, the French president Raymond Poincaré). It came as a surprise that someone had left a folder with the cover of 17 equations that changed the World on top of the tomb). Even though the book covers Poincaré’s work on the three body problem as part of Newton’s formula. There were other mathematicians in this cemetery, but this was enough necrophiliac tourism for one day.
Archive for France
This year is my daughter’s final year in high school and she is now taking the dreaded baccalauréat exams. Just like a few hundred thousands French students. With “just like” in the strict sense since all students with the same major take the very same exam all over France… The first written composition is in the “mother of all disciplines”, philosophy, and the theme of one dissertation this year was “do we live to be happy?”. Which suited well my daughter as she was hoping for a question around that theme. She managed to quote Plato and Buddha, The Pursuit of Happiness and The Wolf of Wall-street… So sounded happy enough with her essay. This seemed indeed like a rather safe notion (as opposed to ethics, religion, politics or work), with enough material to fill a classical thesis-antithesis-synthesis plan (and my personal materialistic conclusion about the lack of predetermination in our lifes).
For those interested in visiting Toulouse at the end of the summer for a French speaking conference in Probability and Statistics, the Modélisation-Aléatoire-Statistique branch of SMAI (the French version of SIAM) is holding its yearly conference. The main theme this year is “High dimension phenomena”, but a large panel of the French research in Probability and Statistics will be represented. The program contains in particular:
- Six plenary conferences and 3 talks by the recent winners of the “Prix Jacques Neveu” award [including Pierre Jacob!],
- 22 parallel sessions, from probability theory to applied statistics and machine learning,
- Posters session for students
More detail is available on the conference website (in French). (The organizing committee is made of Aurélien Garivier, Sébastien Gerchinovitz, Aldéric Joulin, Clément Pellegrini, and Laurent Risser.)
On Tuesday, there was a series of talks (in French) celebrating Statistics, with an introduction by Cédric Villani. (The talks are reproduced on the French Statistical Society (SFDS) webpage.) Rather unpredictably (!), Villani starts from an early 20th Century physics experiment leading to the estimation of the Avogadro constant from a series of integers. (Repeating an earlier confusion of his, he substitutes the probability of observing a rare event under the null with the probability of the alternative on the Higgs boson to be true!) A special mention to/of Francis Galton’s “supreme law of unreason”. And of surveys, pointing out the wide variability of a result for standard survey populations. But missing the averaging and more statistical effect of accumulating surveys, a principle at the core of Nate Silver‘s predictions. A few words again about the Séralini et al. experiments on Monsanto genetically modified maize NK603, attacked for their lack of statistical foundations. And then, hear hear!, much more than a mere mention of phylogenetic inference, with explanations about inverse inference, Markov Chain Monte Carlo algorithms on trees, convergence of Metropolis algorithms by Persi Diaconis, and Bayesian computations! Of course, this could be seen more as numerical probability than as truly statistics, but it is still pleasant to hear.
The last part of the talk more predictably links Villani’s own field of optimal transportation (which I would translate as a copula problem…) and statistics, mostly understood as empirical distributions. I find it somewhat funny that Sanov’s theorem is deemed therein to be a (or even the) Statistics theorem! I wonder how many statisticians could state this theorem… The same remark applies for the Donsker-Varadhan theory of large deviations. Still, the very final inequality linking the three types of information concepts is just… beautiful! You may spot in the last minute a micro confusion in repeating twice the definition for Fisher’s information rather than deducing that the information associated with a location family is constant. (And a no-so-necessary mention of the Cramer-Rao bound on unbiased estimators. Which could have been quoted as the Fréchet-Darmois-Cramer-Rao bound in such historical grounds ) A pleasant moment, all in all! (There are five other talks on that page, including one by Emmanuel Candés.)