The third meeting
Venue – Independent University of Moscow. November 2002.
There were three of us in the meeting with Laurent Lafforgue, with the interpreter Darya Sisoeva helping out.
OO: Monsieur Lafforgue, you are well-known as a patriot of French culture and language. You know several languages, including Russian, and have always defended the right of mathematicians to communicate in scientific circles in their native tongues. This position – is it the result of reflection, or a fruit of family upbringing?
LL: Since childhood, books have been the most important part of my life. From early on, I began to read not only French but also Russian literature. In fact, till I was about twenty years old, my main occupation was literature. I was also interested in history, which kindled in me an interest in other cultures. I didn’t plan on taking up mathematics as a career. I had a very good education, and I had a wide ranges of choices on what to do next. But I’m Parisian, and I wanted to remain in Paris, and so at the age of 19, I joined the École Normale Supérieure– the best school for mathematics and physics, completely unaware of my future career as a researcher. Only in the second year did I realise that I was attracted so much to mathematics. I began to read the works of Grothendieck – he is a French mathematician, and founder of algebraic geometry. That’s when I began my interest in algebraic geometry, because I found in it the sort of beauty that had always appealed to me in literature. I have always thought that in mathematics there’s a deep link to literature, just as with history. After all, mathematics is a collective endeavour. And if I count for something in mathematics, then surely I count for something in the historical process as well.
OO: Is there anyone you would like to share your success with?
LL: Certainly. There are people who supported me in my most difficult moments. In addition, having spent six years at University and in graduate school, when I was unable to write my thesis, I was admitted into a research group with some fellow investigators. Still, for two years I had no serious results to show. I was getting paid, but I just couldn’t complete my dissertation. This wasn’t the best time of my life. But the head of my group, Luc Illusie, not only believed in me but also took charge of my situation, and offered to change my supervisor. Now I understand that I just wasn’t interested in working on old themes. If you don’t like what you are doing, you can’t come up with any beauty in your work. Thus I got a new supervisor, Gerard Laumon, who then took charge of my fate.
He gave me a new topic, and things improved – I began to get good results. My supervisor, despite being a famous mathematician, took a lot of interest in me, uncaring of his own time. I owe him personally no less than I do professionally. And the next topic, the one for which I won the prize, was one he founded. But even here, things were not simple. I worked on the subject for six years, and as my research concluded and I began to present expository lectures on my work, I realised that I had somewhere along the line committed an error.
This was a deeply tragic moment in my work, because the error cast doubt on my entire research. I have to say that at that time not only my supervisor, but also all my colleagues at University understood the gravity of the situation that I found myself in, and all of them supported me. All of them.
OO: Are you from an academic family?
LL: My grandparents were uneducated, and my parents are physicists. I have two younger brothers, both of whom are mathematicians. One is a researcher, and the other a teacher.
OO: In earlier times, during the USSR, there were widely distributed scientific family dynasties. Following a career in science didn’t bring much by way of material gain, but much honour and respect. But in the last fifteen years, the situation has changed dramatically. How does a mathematician feel about himself in France? Is there a problem of ‘brain drain’ in your country?
LL: French scientists receive good money, albeit less than in the US, but overall they do lead good lives. Importantly, in France we have very strong mathematical schools and many famous universities. There isn’t much of a brain drain because the majority of French mathematicians want to work in their own country. Nor is there much unemployment because there are lots of places open to researchers. So we have not only Russian mathematicians visiting us, but also Americans. They are happy to lose monetarily because they are attracted by the high scientific level.
Undoubtedly, France has not been unaffected by the changes that have occurred throughout the world: the undervaluing of intellectual capability. Our youth prefers to entertain itself. They prefer sport or show-business, anything other than science. And that’s a pity. Young people do not want to occupy themselves with anything intellectual because there are no guarantees of any material fortune. But I have always sought beauty. In the beginning, in literature and poetry, then in history. I realised very late that in mathematics too there is an equal beauty. If you work in the fields of scientific discovery, this is always interesting. I felt this most keenly in the university when all around me were so many bright people, all of whom were inventing, discovering something new.
OO: In Russia, we have a joke: “An American university is where Russian instructors teach mathematics to Chinese students.” Don’t you think that in coming years, Russia might stop supplying mathematical brainpower, and the arena will be left open to that other scientific superpower, namely China?
LL: Of course, having been in Beijing, I am able to assess the level of state support for science. But I think such pessimistic forecasts are premature. In Russia, despite the poor funding for science, mathematics cannot really die out – after all, for seventy years, the Russian school has been the strongest. And other countries, too, won’t let Russian mathematics die out. For example, the Independent Mathematical Institute where we are now has been financed by the US.
OO: Our interview with Vladimir Voevodsky ended with his apocalyptic predictions about the future of mathematics in general as a fundamental science. In this regard, are you an optimist or a pessimist?
LL: As you prefer… Voevodsky is a representative of the American mathematical scholarship. That is a completely different world; true, they are paid a lot, but intellect in the US has never been particularly valued. My prognosis is more optimistic. Science with such a long history cannot die, and people will continue their researches. On my own part, I have two themes that will over the next thirty years interest a lot of people.
OO: Are you ready to return to this debate in thirty years?
LL: If we live that long.
[I translated loosely from Olga Orlova’s piece on Polit.Ru. It appears that in 2002, when she first wrote it up to link with the International Congress of Mathematicians at Beijing, the journal that had commissioned it, ‘New Model’, went out of business without publishing it. She and her editors decided that the content was still relevant in 2006, when the Perelman story was appearing in the world’s press in the run-up to the ICM in Madrid.]
[A loose translation from an article in Le Figaro by Bruno Corty, Françoise Dargent, Thierry Clermont.]
The 1960s were marked by the conquest of the Moon. Forty years ago, Neil Armstrong walked on that new world, an achievement that was the culmination of a competition at once ideological and technological. For the Americans, this was an achievement to demonstrate their scientific superiority in the geopolitical context of the Cold War with the Soviets. To celebrate the event, the magazine Life commissioned Norman Mailer to reflect on the mission of the Apollo XI. His text, Moon Fire, has recently been reprinted in a new edition. Furthermore, an anthology gathers novels and poems celebrating the Moon. From Alexandre Dumas to Edgar Allan Poe, through Jules Verne and Pierre Boulle, Pierre Louÿs and Lamartine, writers and poets have imagined a thousand ways to walk on the moon before man finally arrived. Yet another reissue not to be missed is that of the extraordinary voyages by the Greek rhetorician Lucian who lived in the second century of our era, and was the first to describe in great detail a trip to the moon.
1969, The Year of Science
Norman Mailer had a busy 1969. At the age of 46, he had won two major awards that year – the Pulitzer and the National Book Award – for The Armies of the Night. In the process, he led a hyperactive campaign to try to win the election for Mayor of New York City, a campaign that failed spectacularly. In July, he was the reporter commissioned by Life to cover the moon mission of Apollo 11 from Houston. With his degree in aeronautical engineering from Harvard University, he was considered the best man for the job. But this was the age of the new journalism. Like Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson, he did not write what he saw as much as what he felt, experienced, lived through, imagined, extrapolated. The writing was unconstrained, freeing, a little crazy, passionate. His work began with an evocation of the death of Ernest Hemingway, Mailer’s God. Then the author evoked the upheavals that had shaken American since 1961.
Then, before turning his attention to the subject at hand, towards Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, the heroes of this cosmic adventure, he gave himself a pen name, Aquarius (he was born on 31 January), which he used throughout this dense, verbose, rambling work that broke into thousands of pieces of interest. In his report, he drew on the literature on UFOs, and dealt pell-mell with the equipage used, and the German designer of the Saturn V rocket, on the Moon (which he called ‘Mond’ in German, so reminiscent of the French ‘Monde’ and the Dutch and Danish ‘Maan’ and ‘Maand’), the challenges and risks of this daring adventure, the wives of the astronauts, his own marriages, Kennedy, Nixon, art, Cezanne…
For fanatic followers of Mailer and the Moon, a deluxe edition is now available: Moon Fire, sold in an beautiful box, and containing photographs from NASA and Life magazine.
On Earth as in Heaven
Here are four books for children who want to know everything about the first humans in space.
Novelistic. Even before being a technical challenge, the space race is above all a human adventure. Jim Lovell, a hero of successive Apollo missions, has penned a worthy novel. Those who dreamed of the Moon followed the path of this pioneer who succeeded in bringing back the infamous Apollo 13 safely to Earth. A documentary chapter links up the story with historical fact. (Suitable for children 11 years onwards.)
Crazy. Gravitas is not Frank Cottrell Boyce’s cup of tea. There are those who see him as the successor to Roald Dahl, but that doesn’t stop him from addressing the world through teen books that conceal accuracy under a layer of cheery good humour. Cosmic describes the adventures of Liam Digby, a boy whose adult appearance enables him to participate in a contest seeking to groom the world’s youngest astronaut. (Suitable for children 13 years onwards.)
Non-fiction. This is a book that impeccably discusses the entire subject of the Moon landings. The Moon Mission is packed with illustrations, and comes with a DVD that allows the viewer to follow the trajectory of this adventure to the stars right from its first steps. Discover it all with your family! (Suitable for children 10 years and up.)
Fun. The Big Cartoon Book of the Earth and the Sky is addressed to those little ones who are already somewhat moonstruck. Children can lift and turn knobs and pulleys to discover how our Solar System operates. They learn about the craters on the Moon and all about tides so that they understand, in summer, why it is that their sandcastles on the beach are swallowed up by the waves. (Suitable for children 5 years and up.)
The Eye of the Ghosts
The Moon is the leitmotif of the fantastic tales (Tales of Moonlight and Rain) of the Japanese writer Akinari Ueda.
Flaky, full and round, brilliant… The Moon is omnipresent in these fantastic tales written in Japanese in the late eighteenth century. Each of the nine stories features a man to meeting a ghost, a theme that recurs in the genres of traditional Noh theater and kabuki. The tones are alternately humorous, macabre, dreamlike.
In The Cauldron of Kibitsu, a jealous wife returns to earth to torment her rival and to eventually bring her husband to the world of darkness. Carp narrates the history of Kogi, a painter and a Buddhist monk of the tenth century who turns into fish to escape the nets of a fisherman. Akinari Ueda had a tumultuous life. Son of a courtesan of the “floating world”, a term denoting a red-light area in Osaka, he has written a handful of stories, still popular in Japan. His name has been associated with the 1953 film “Ugetsu” by Kenji Mizoguchi, whose availability on DVD along with this publication is very welcome.