Who is Cédric Villani?
Cédric Villani is many things: a rock star mathematician, a Fields medalist, and a bestselling author. He is also running as a member of the party La République En Marche! for the National Assembly in France.
With shoulder length hair, cravat, and spider brooch, Villani does not look like your typical mathematician. He is certainly not typical, in the best possible sense: his work on partial differential equations, mathematical physics, and the theory of mass transport has brought him world-wide acclaim and numerous awards from fellow mathematicians.
In the last federal French election, he was a vocal supporter of now President Emmanuel Marcon, and an opponent to Frexit (that is, a Brexit-style exit from the European Union). Through his various roles, Villani has been an advocate for mathematics in the public arena. Although he would be a novice member of the assembly, he has served on the Strategic Research Council in France, and has been the director of the Institut Henri-Poincaré in Paris since 2009.
He’s also a wonderful communicator. Watch his TED talk for evidence.
Smart is sexy
With other pressing issues facing politicians in Canada and other countries, ranging from health care, to the environment, and to job creation, mathematics isn’t on the top of the policy radar. The Naylor report has raised the profile of some of important issues in STEM, but most Canadians remain unaware of the importance of mathematics in society.
Mathematics infuses the world we live in, with applications in every aspect of our lives. I’ve written about the power and utility of mathematics in previous blogs, so won’t revisit that point deeply here. Nevertheless, mathematicians often find themselves unwilling or unable to engage in public discussions about the significance of their work.
While mathematical theories often don’t find application right away, mathematics research is deeply tied with nearly every important advance in science and engineering. Despite that, our funding levels are lower than other disciplines in STEM. Mathematicians simply cannot afford to stay silent about what they do and why it matters.
Villani’s run for public office also comes at a pivotal time in our democracies. Think of it as brain over hype. With politicians flaunting alternative facts, spouting bluster over reasoned debate, and pitching dogma instead of scientifically informed decision-making, the time is ripe now for a heightened participation by mathematicians and other scholars in government and policy.
Smart is sexy. Politicians don’t need to dumb things down for us. Just ask our Prime Minister when he spoke to Canadians about quantum computing.
Mathematicians turned politicians
Villani is not alone in his quest to run for public office; indeed, there are many other mathematicians, historically and in the present day, who have done so.
For example, Kazimierz Bartel was President of Poland in the 1920s and a professor of mathematics. Faustin-Archange Touadéra is the President of the Central African Republic and received his doctorate in mathematics in 1986. Keith Mitchell is the President of Grenada and holds a doctorate in mathematics from American University.
Scholars in other fields, of course, also hold public office. Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, holds a PhD in quantum chemistry. That is fantastic. Some have described Merkel as the world’s most powerful woman.
So more power to Cédric Villani. With luck and momentum, he can help break down barriers, especially regarding how mathematics is viewed in policy making.
While I can’t vote in France, I wish him success.