[Notice: This post is fairly “local” in that it is about a long-time friend being celebrated by his university. Nice poster though and an opportunity to stress his essential contributions to the maths department there!]

Next June, I will spend the day in Rouen for a conference celebrating the career and dedication of Gérard Grancher to mathematics and the maths department there. (When I got invited I had not realised I was to give the research talk of the day!) Gérard Granger is a CNRS engineer and a statistician who is indissociable from the maths department in Rouen, where he spent his whole career, now getting quite close to [mandatory] retirement! I am very happy to take part in this celebration as Gérard has always been an essential component of the department there, driving the computer structure, reorganising the library, disseminating the fun of doing maths to high schools around and to the general public, and always a major presence in the department, whom I met when I started my PhD there (!) Working on the local computers in Pascal and typing my thesis with scientific word (!!)

Le Monde has launched a series of tribunes proposing career advices from 35 personalities, among whom this week (Jan. 4, 2017) Cédric Villani. His suggestion for younger generations is to invest in artificial intelligence and machine learning. While acknowledging this still is a research topic, then switching to robotics [although this is mostly a separate. The most powerful advice in this interview is to start with a specialisation when aiming at a large spectrum of professional opportunities, gaining the opening from exchanges with people and places. And cultures. Concluding with a federalist statement I fully share.

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.)

A (French) documentary film about maths just came out on French screens this week, here is the preview/teaser (with English translation or subtitles):

I have not seen {comment j’ai détesté les maths} (and do not plan to!) as this movie/documentary seems to centre on a few exotic characters like Cédric Villani and to blame the subprime crisis on the mathematical modelling used in constructing complex financial products, so cannot see how this could improve the vision outsiders have of mathematics. Rather than of mathematicians. And I have always hated the joke on the film poster (“Find X. Here it is!”), joke that adorns too many office doors in maths departments all over the World…

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…