Cédric Villani: “African Students Are Very Interesting, We Feel The Appetite And Enthusiasm”

We learn a lot by talking with the most famous French mathematician.That Beninese are the most efficient in the discipline, or that France is about to miss an opportunity. For Cédric Villani, Fields Medal 2010, multiplies travel in Africa. It is particularly invested in the project of AIMS institutes for African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, centers of excellence launched by the South African cosmologist Neil Turok in 2003. As a parallel initiative, the Next Einstein Forum,  ‘hesitate to affirm that the next Einstein will be African.

You are therefore customary continent?

Cédric Villani I practice mainly French-speaking Africa, with already sixteen or seventeen trips, and Senegal than elsewhere. When we want to do things seriously, what counts is not going anywhere, but monitoring and relationships over the long term. I teach in the AIMS centers in Cameroon and Senegal. I also go in Algeria and Benin . Here, there is no centerAIMS, but I’m president of the scientific council of the Benin Initiative, funded by the World Bank. Beninese are the ones I know best, it is the most efficient. This is linked to their traditions. Some mathematicians are very Benin recognized internationally. In every country I go to university , I see ministers, ambassadors, I give helping hands, I write letters of recommendation.


How are the students?

African students are very interesting. They have no access to literature, they lack access to faculty level international but appetite can feel the enthusiasm that we tend to forget in the most developed countries. There are many questions in the courses. A stunning blend of ultra motivated people and other more passive. Some have learned everything by heart, others are more imaginative. A teacher of Paris VI that I convinced to go to Cameroon came back very happy, saying that student engagement was higher than its Parisian students.

Are the universities up to these students?

They all suffer from the curse of the number. In Europe , we talk so much of excellence that it becomes nauseating. Here, however, it is a word that has not been heard enough. The problem of African universities is how to select the few students who can go to the next level, which must lead to efficient centers. It is the ambition of AIMS, a truly remarkable model linked to universities but with some independence. Once on the ground, it’s an endurance race. We must overcome countless obstacles, find good directors, good relations with the government.


The world he is speaking African academic very different?

The difference is considerable. The world English is more pragmatic, but Francophones have a higher level in mathematics . Francophone African programs are more demanding than in France, they remained that we had it a few years ago. For now and for a long time yet, the African world of science is split between the two poles of the practitioners Anglophones and Francophones most theorists. One will not absorb the other but the marriage of the two is an important equation to solve for the continent, especially there heavyweight English side: theNigeria fielding a hundred universities there has good facilities in South Africa and a country like Rwanda is progressing very fast.

Mathematics, which require little expensive equipment, are not an ideal discipline for poor countries?

True, but other factors are taken into account. The most important work in mathematics is a building. And it’s not nothing. This is often the number one concern. We must find it, thedefense against those who also want to lobby, to avoid it degrades. It takes years and sometimes it does not resolve. The other thing when you have good African mathematicians is exile and travel are an indispensable step in their development . And if they go after, which is a personal choice, you have the right local conditions. We must wage infrastructure. I have a Harvard African colleague who returned to Nigeria and wondered why. The pay is not great and the current is sometimes cut from 10 to 18 hours Funding research, a person, a purse , okay, but finance a conducive ecosystem to mathematics, it’s expensive!


Why the trip it is essential to mathematicians?

Because without discussion , without contact with others, it is not the right problems, good questions, good reflexes that come out. A mathematician is nothing without its environment .We spend our time we meet , to travel .

For Skype, it does not work?

No, because Skype conversations are directed. They talk about a specific thing, we listen to the conference so and so because there is a tool that will be useful. But we also need informal discussions. If you listen to the conversations of mathematicians between them is very striking, they wonder is there physically, that was committed, that is gone, whereupon such person works. The space is extremely structured. Virtual universities for mathematics, we can forget, it does not work. It takes four walls, a roof, be together.

Do you sometimes see students come out of nowhere, who taught himself, through the Internet?

No. Working on mathematical research problems, it is exercised by years of hard work. If you are not in an environment, in a class with a teacher who gives you stress, you are not doing the exercises. In all my travels, I have met only one exceptional case: an Argentine student who was at the University of Buenos Aires but had found his own research problems on the Internet.

France does not seem very involved in the AIMS program …

That is true. And there was no French institutional representative to the Next Einstein Dakar in March 2016. This may be due to the architecture of governance ideal for the French: it’s well organized, everyone has what s’ deal, but if a new thing appears, it falls into the silos. AIMS also began rather Anglo-Saxon side and some French blocked, because in English,mathematical science is not really the same direction. French side, it’s just math, while in English it is more general, this includes the physical , etc. This has disturbed some French mathematicians who are straddling the terminologies. I think this debate is exceeded. The challenge is how France will position for years to come . In 2100, there will be 4 billion Africans.This will be the largest reservoir of students worldwide. Does France will dies? Will it prepared to take the needs of training , or is it that everything will be gone over American universities?This is a real issue! I have several examples of French sectors that lose ground to English-speaking channels. And with AIMS, France is about to miss an opportunity.

Including the part of businesses private?

Yes. The one who is represented [in the AIMS Next Einstein Forum and] is Orange because I am in their scientific council. The Anglo-Saxon firms are less shy, maybe because they are not, as often in France, the former SOEs. They take risks, they include the long term. A minister of higher education who does his job should not expect any reward during his tenure.It is the same company that invests in Africa: it is not the boss who decides who will benefit, but his successor or the next.

The World Africa is organizing on 27 and 28 October in Dakar, the third edition of his debateswith the theme this year, the challenges of higher education in Africa. It will discuss universities, the adequacy of current technologies with the needs of enterprises, technological innovation in the service of education and training African leaders, the formation of the great mathematicians of tomorrow. Admission is free on registration. Click here to view the program and register .

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