Archive for Algeria

une vie brève [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, University life with tags , , , , , , , on April 30, 2016 by xi'an

This short book is about the equally short life (une vie brève) of the young mathematician Maurice Audin, killed or executed by French special forces (Massu’s paratroopers) in Algiers during the Algerian liberation war. Maurice Audin was 25 when he died and the circumstances of his death remain unknown, since the French army never acknowledged this death and never returned his body to his family, but he presumably died under torture. He was a member of the Algerian communist party which had then been outlawed by the French authorities for supporting Algerian independence. Maurice Audin was arrested on June 11, 1957 for hiding a fugitive and he died in the following days… The book is written by his daughter, Michèle Audin, also a mathematician, and a writer of several novels around mathematics and mathematicians. It does not dwell on the death since so little is known but rather reconstructs the life of Maurice Audin from bits and pieces, family memories, school archives, a few pictures, some grocery bills of the Audin family… The style of Michèle Audin is quite peculiar, almost like written thoughts or half-thoughts at times, with a sort of surgical distanciation that makes the book both strong and touching. Maurice Audin wrote several papers in les Comptes Rendus de l’Académie des Sciences [the French PNAS] but did not live long enough to defend his thesis, which was presented by Laurent Schwartz the following year and defended in absentia… The French State never acknowledged its responsability in Audin’s death. (Another book on this death is L’Affaire Audin by the historian Pierre-Vidal Naquet, which appeared in 1958.)

Le premier homme [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2015 by xi'an

I read this book by Albert Camus over my week in Oxford, having found it on my daughter’s bookshelf (as she had presumably read it in high school…). It is a very special book in that (a) Camus was working on it when he died in a car accident, (b) the manuscript was found among the wreckage, and (c) it differs very much from Camus’ other books. Indeed, the book is partly autobiographical and written with an unsentimental realism that is raw and brutal. It describes the youth of Jacques, the son of French colons in Algiers, whose father had died in the first days of WW I and whose family lives in the uttermost poverty, with both his mother and grandmother doing menial jobs to simply survive. Thanks to a supportive teacher, he manages to get a grant to attend secondary school. What is most moving about the book is how Camus describes the numbing effects of poverty, namely how his relatives see their universe shrinking so much that notions like the Mother Country (France) or books loose meaning for them. Without moving them towards or against native Algerians, who never penetrate the inner circles in the novel, moving behind a sort of glass screen. It is not that the tensions and horrors of the colonisation and of the resistance to colonisation are hidden, quite the opposite, but the narrator considers those with a sort of fatalism without questioning the colonisation itself. (The book reminded me very much of my grand-father‘s childhood, with a father also among the dead soldiers of WW I, being raised by a single mother in harsh conditions. With the major difference that my grandfather decided to stop school very early to become a gardener…) There are also obvious parallels with Pagnol’s autobiographical novels like My Father’s Glory, written at about the same time, from the boy friendship to the major role of the instituteur, to the hunting party, to the funny uncle, but everything opposes the two authors, from Pagnol light truculence to Camus’ tragic depiction.  Pagnol’s books are great teen books (and I still remember my mother buying the first one on a vacation road trip) but nothing more. Camus’ book could have been his greatest book, had he survived the car accident of January 1960.

statistics do not always lie

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2012 by xi'an

Le Monde weekend edition science leaflet (Le Monde[wes] from now on!) had several interesting entries this weekend. One was a blurb by Cédric Villani with the above title. Or in French “Les statistiques ne sont pas toujours des mensonges“. This most communicant of our Fields Medalists focussed on two recent scientific news to conclude about the relevance of statistics (herein considered as one of the mathematical sciences!) in scientific discoveries: the validation of the significance of the observations connected with the Higgs Boson and the invalidation of the significance of the Séralini et al. experiments on Monsanto genetically modified maize NK603. Villani actually reproduces the erroneous and quasi-universal interpretation of the statistical analysis of the Higgs Boson as establishing its existence with a probability of .999999, as already discussed in an earlier post. (The whole issue was discussed on the ISBA forum, following Dennis Lindley’s call.) I also mentioned the Monsanto experiment in an earlier post last month, experiment whose publication was surrounded by hyper mediatisation and later controversy, while being validated by the Elsevier journal Food and Chemical Toxicology.

Another interesting entry was the blurb of Marco Zito, physicist in CEA, on another Fields Medalist, Laurent Schwartz, the mathematician who formalised Dirac deltas into the theory of distributions. He first recalls his discovery of Schwartz’s wonderful Théorie des Distributions that I read with fascination in the early 1980’s. (And that most surprisingly does not seem to have been translated in English…) He then discusses the personality of Laurent Schwartz, as described in the wonderful A Mathematician Grappling with His Century, his autobiography where he describes his political involvement against the French war in Algeria, esp. about the disappearance and murder by torture of the young mathematician Maurice Audin. Laurent Schwartz was actually excluded a few years from the faculty at École Polytechnique for this involvement…