Parcours de mathématiciens
Robin Ryder gave me a book to read last week: “Parcours de mathématiciens” by Philippe Pajot, who is a journalist in the vulgarisation journal La Recherche. The book is in fact a series of interviews of twelve French mathematicians with the same canvas: vocation, training, mathematical discoveries, mentors, current state of mathematics, plus an insert or two on a favourite piece of art. The book is part of a series “Comment je suis devenu…” (how I became…), whose aim is to induce new vocations through examples. It is enjoyable because it covers the careers of (mostly) impressive mathematicians, however it lacks the strength of true autobiographies like Laurent Schwartz‘s or the older Hardy’s Apology. Selecting twelve personalities from the French mathematical community is obviously a journalistic reduction, but it is interesting to spot some common features in most of their careers: an overwhelming part had teachers or researchers in their close family, a similar proportion went to Ecole Normale or Polytechnique (with Benoît Mandelbrot resigning from Normale to enter Polytechnique, in reaction against the Bourbakism of the time!), half of them got positions in CNRS at some point, five are or were involved in vulgarisation (Jean-Paul Delahaye regularly contributes to La Recherche and Pour la Science, Denis Guedj wrote a dozen novels relating to mathematics, including the popular Parrot’s Theorem [an dramatised history of mathematics which starts on the wrong foot by excluding statistics, because “it was too empirical to be a subsection of maths.“]) and most are (rightly) worried about the decrease in the number of math students in France and elsewhere (the four didacticians in the group blaming the way mathematics are taught in primary and secondary schools).