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Olga Orlova and the Fields Medallists – Part III

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.]

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