TEDxParis 2012 – Cedric Villani – La naissance des idées


Translator: PhAnh MAC
Reviewer: Denise RQ Hello. As a very true proverb goes, prediction is a difficult art form,
mostly when it is about the future. And it’s perfectly accurate. It is very difficult to predict
what science will be in 2030, which is, of course, one of the topics
that we can address in this TEDx. When asked about this in 1900,
Henri Poincaré – the greatest mathematician of his time –
got away with it by dint of a pirouette. “If, in 1800, we’d asked any scholar what science would be in the 19th century, what nonsense he would
have said, great God! That thought keeps me from answering you. I believe that we will get
surprising results. This is exactly why
I can’t tell you anything, because if I foresaw it, what surprise
would there be left about it?” Today, I could very well take this quote from the great man for myself, stop here, and defer to the next speaker, enabling an appreciable gain of time. (Laughter) Do you agree? You don’t seem to agree.
Then we shall go on. Poincaré makes a prediction for us,
actually, without appearing to. A prediction
that surprising things will happen, and that tomorrow,
like today, like yesterday, innovative ideas will play a vital role. Discoveries that we cannot foresee,
but for which we can prepare. Ideas are extremely powerful —
this is well known here at TED. Ideas can make you change your opinion, win you a war,
change the fate of humanity. Among several highly representative
examples from the 20th century, we have here, to your right,
the English mathematician Alan Turing, born 100 years ago,
whose mathematical ideas, during the Second World War,
allowed the allies to crack Germans’ secret code —
the German Marine’s secret code, and whose researches led
to the development of computers. To his left, Paul Erdős,
the errant mathematician, a Hungarian Jew, uprooted by the war,
wandering with no luggage, no money, no job, no car, nothing else but the richness of his ideas and the solidarity of his friends who made him the most prolific
mathematician of the 20th century. At the center, you have
Leó Szilárd, his compatriot, the first to have the idea
of a chain reaction, which, for good or for evil,
led to the atomic bomb. We can see it through these examples:
an idea can change the whole world. And all higher education institutions in the world, in the US, in Europe,
and everywhere else, pride themselves not only on the knowledge they pass on but on the ability to have
innovative ideas that they teach. That, is true wealth! But ideas, how does it work? What happens when we have an idea?
Let’s give the floor back to Poincaré. Poincaré is one of the few scientists
to have written in the first person about the process
of discovering great ideas. A very famous text,
which, to sciences, is a little like what Proust’s Madeleine is to literature. In a very famous text, he talks about an inspiration
that comes to him suddenly when he puts his foot on a step
during a bus ride, bringing the solution he was looking for. Let’s take a look at another example,
where he talks about how he resolved a problem
in which he took great interest and which he had been fighting in vain. “Having enough of my failure, I went
to spend a few days at the seaside, and thought about
something completely different. One day, while walking along a cliff, the idea came to me, always
with the same characteristics of brevity, suddenness and immediate certainty, – excuse the big words – that the arithmetic transformations
of ternary indefinite quadratic forms are identical to those
of the non-Euclidean geometry.” (Laughter) Even if you didn’t grasp
the entire subtlety and poetry of the last lines, you understand that it has nothing to do
with the cliffs, or walking. That’s precisely the point. What Poincaré describes to us
is a complex process in which periods
of intense and conscious work alternate with sudden aspirations
that come without warning, absolutely unrelated to what you’re doing – walking a cliff for instance – because there was an unconscious
and very poorly understood brain work. The younger of you, keep this in mind — if one night you have
a rebellious math assignment and you want to go meet your friends in a nightclub, try using the Poincaré method
with your parents. Tell them, a mathematician
has explained in a large conference that in order to solve problems,
you should go out and wait for the inspiration to come. Let me know if that works. So, we don’t have
a lot of testimonials like Poincaré’s. I tried to make mine,
it’s called “Living theorem,” and it’s the story of an idea
from the viewpoint of one of those who gave birth to it. The story of an idea
between the story of a theorem, an assembly, and an innovative assembly
of mathematical concepts, to solve a problem of plasma physics —
I won’t tell you which one. The book is not about the problem,
it’s about the resolution. From the first moment
when a fruitful conversation between two mathematicians
marks the beginning of the project until the moment when the consolidated
discovery is ready to be born. That is to say, to be published
as a research paper. Between these two moments,
there’s a long and non-linear quest of two years and a half,
with joy and sorrow, moments of exaltation and depression, unexpected rebounds, illuminations — a bit like the one described
by Poincaré, lows and highs, and phases of extremely hard work. A complex, a little chaotic process
which represents what may be the birth of an idea. In this book, the hero is
an idea, but, also, it is clear that mathematical ideas
aren’t born mathematically. Mathematicians’ brain, like everyone’s, is built upon emotions,
analogies, and feelings, and one must manage
to bring the logical idea into this biological and emotional matrix. A biological brain carries the idea, sometimes it’s the idea that carries
human beings when it’s strong. That’s the story told
by author Francis Spufford in a fascinating historical novel,
Red Plenty, the story of an idea
which was thought to be able to revolutionize
Soviet Russia in the 50s. Linear programming, with genius mathematicians in control, and all the social and political impacts
that this idea could bring about. As says Spufford
in his book’s introduction, the hero of this book is an idea. And we could spend hours
talking about ideas and their adventures, their history, geography, exchanges, all kinds of things related to them. I’m just going,
in the few remaining minutes, to identify some ingredients
necessary for the emergence of ideas. To have good ideas,
a well trained brain is perhaps necessary; and even that is not enough
to have good ideas. To have the ideas and theorems
which earned me the Fields medal in 2010, the brain was not the only factor,
there were a lot of other ingredients found in all ideas. They’re found through the centuries, always the same ones, I think, but evolving according to culture
and technology, and each of these ingredients
is a research topic on its own, mingling hard and social sciences. First ingredient: documentation. Encyclopedias, experimental results, information, results representations, everything that will feed your brain. This has been revolutionized
by computing. Nowadays, with an electronic encyclopedia, you can retrieve a formula
that you forgot, of which you forgot even the name, as long as you vaguely know
what it’s about. It’s a revolution. Second fundamental ingredient,
without which nothing’s done: motivation. It’s something not to be neglected. This is probably the most serious threat to science in the industrialized
countries nowadays — the lack of motivation
of the young generations for science professions, exciting professions though — a problem that affects
all industrialized countries. Where does motivation come from?
We’d be happy if we knew. It comes and it’s sometimes passed on
from teacher to student, from parent to child. It can be discovered
in an illustrated book, through a cartoon, like some of those
I used to watch when I was a child. It can be found in experiments
such as the one depicted here — the experiment conducted by a professor with his primary school students
in England on bees’ behavior. The bees, which will integrate
color and pattern recognition to choose where to forage. It’s a topic for a class to work on as a research theme, which leads to the publication
of an article in a journal. All authors, except one,
are children of primary school. In the conclusions of the study,
they discovered some things about bees, and they say, “We also found out
that science is fun.” There you have a conclusion that I hope
will be discovered times and again by numbers of children
in the coming decades. Our future depends on it. Third ingredient without which
you can’t do anything: an enabling environment
which allows you to develop your ideas. Material and intellectual conditions. People with whom to discuss,
it can be a laboratory with colleagues, an institute such as the one
I’m honored to direct – the Henri Poincaré Institute –
one that receives researchers from all horizons and all countries
in mathematics and theoretical physics. It can also be the city environment
with the encounters it enables. The science historian Marc Giget,
specializing in innovations, has analyzed the role of cities
as innovation units through the centuries, going back up to ancient examples
such as the legendary city of Persepolis – an innovation phenomenon –
and many others. Other examples of cities
with an extremely innovative climate include Budapest
of the years 1920 to 1930, with its extremely tolerant climate,
where prevailed an intellectual richness that led to the emergence
of these famous Martians — these scientists speaking
an incomprehensible language, of whom we have already seen two, and who have revolutionized the world
with their discoveries in mathematics and theoretical physics. It can be an encounter in a city, it can be an encounter
like this TED conference in Paris. It can also be an encounter
like the one that led me to find myself at the dinner table
of a literary editor one night and that resulted in the publication
of the book I introduced earlier. Without this encounter
in this city, no book. You see on what an idea depends — on your environment, not just on you. Fourth ingredient: exchanges. Face to face exchanges are fundamental to the start of a project,
but to develop the idea, propel it, you have all kinds
of possibility of exchange. Nowadays it can be through emails. And during months,
with a main contributor in particular, we exchanged hundreds of emails, creating a sort of delocalized brain on both sides of the Atlantic. The mathematician Tim Gowers conducted
much more impressive experiments with hundreds of mathematicians
working together to solve a theorem on his blog. Fifth ingredient: constraints. They are mostly expected
to be of scientific nature but they can also be
at the creativity level. Their roles in artistic co-creation
has often been highlighted. Two noteworthy examples
that I am presenting — the musical piece written by György Ligeti entirely in A, with one exception, and, on the right, an excerpt
from this famous novel by Georges Perec in which the constraint
was to never use the letter ‘e’. Constraint as an element of creation. Sixth ingredient, as we have seen
with Poincaré — this mix and wise dosage of work and intuition where hard work
and unexplained illumination alternate. And then, the seventh ingredient:
perseverance and luck. The nanny working
for a famous mathematician once described the work
of her employer to her friends, “I don’t understand what he does. He spends his day
scribbling on paper sheets. As evening falls, he crumples everything
and throw it away.” And that says it all. Because in the same way 99% of patents
won’t result in any yielding invention, most ideas don’t work out. It’s normal and it’s the way it is. The researcher spends his time
sending his brilliant ideas to the bin because they don’t work out. From time to time luck saves one of them and there starts a great adventure. You see all that is needed
for an idea to emerge? We get that it’s precious,
but it’s not the end of the adventure once you realised your idea. And both today and tomorrow,
dissemination of ideas will be a key challenge. Ideas are normally
meant to be exchanged freely. Let’s quote Thomas Jefferson,
one of the Founding Fathers of the USA, “If nature has made any one thing
less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action
of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively
possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces
itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver
cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too,
is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses
the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives
instruction himself without lessening mine as he who lights his taper at mine,
receives light without darkening me.” Words worth remembering today and not necessarily understood by all,
as shows the following anecdote. As a lot of my colleagues do,
I publish my articles on my website, all with free access for my colleagues,
and, a few weeks ago, a platform for the dissemination of ideas
contacted me to collect some and post them on its platform. And the manager receives,
several weeks later, a comminatory letter
with a plethora of names of lawyers representing a great number
of scientific editions mentioning infringement
of intellectual property and explaining that damages
and interests are claimed. Today, in 2012,
Jefferson’s words are still relevant. We have to be reminded of them,
and will have to, again, in 20 years. To protect ideas, which are as powerful
as they are precious and fragile. I’ll leave the concluding word
to Henri Poincaré — “Ideas are thoughts. Thought is like a flash in a long night;
but it is this flash that is everything.” Thank you. (Applause)

30 Replies to “TEDxParis 2012 – Cedric Villani – La naissance des idées”

  1. z^n=z^(n-3)*{[z(z 1)/2]^2-[(z-m-a-1)(z-m-a)/2]^2 – [z(z-1)/2]^3 + [(z-m-a)(z-m-a 1)/2]^2 – (z-m-a)^3}.
    when (a) move from 1 to 2,3,4….endless
    The euqation (z^n=x^n +y^n) mean many other equations with a =1,a=2….endless.
    If exists a reasonable equation all other equayions are unreasonable

  2. Je ne suis pas alors pas du tout d accord ce monsieur n a absolument aucune idee sur la neurophysiologie il reflete bien l etat d esprit français il ne fait que citer les autres et donner une manière de faire qu est i valable pour lui mais peut etre pas pour les autres comment travaille l inconscient pour résoudre un problème si l inconscient sait ce qu il fait il n est pas donc inconscient enfin ce qui réussit pour les uns ne marche pas pour les autre

  3. En gros, comme le dit Jefferson l'idée ne peut être une "propriété" que si elle n'est pas partagée avec autrui. Du moment ou l'on partage cette idée, elle est acquise par quiconque la comprend et rentre en contact avec elle. Il est par la très troublant que des maisons d'édition réclament de l'argent en faisant valoir une propriété sur une idée que d'ailleurs, elles n'ont elle même jamais eu en premier lieu… Les maisons d'édition scientifiques (Springer, Elsevier etc), un grand débat…

  4. A la lumière de la citation de Jefferson, il me semble qu'il fustige la maison d'édition et les avocats. Je suis aussi dérouté que vous par ce passage. La confusion vient peut-être du fait qu'il qualifie l'idée de "précieuse" et "fragile". D'un autre côté, la flamme de la torche est tout aussi précieuse et fragile, on gagne à la partager, sans y perdre (Ca ne tient plus si vous donnez du feu à quelqu'un qui voudrait vous nuire, au passage. L'analogie a ses limites)

  5. Une idée ,, La puissance d'une idée,, Qui peut rapporter beaucoup d'agent de nos jours ,,,
    Il faut mettre l'accent sur l'honnêteté intellectuelle ou l'honnêteté tout court . Toujours donner ses sources, ne pas s'approprier l'idée des autres sans en faire référence.  

  6. Pour citer Fanny Ardant : "l'intelligence c'est sexy!"
    Voilà un sujet de conférence passionnant…Pour ceux que cela intéresse le magazine Inexploré de l'INREES publie ce mois-ci son mensuel sur ce thème.
    Cédric pardon Mr Villani, décrit içi les conditions plus que favorable à l'émergence créative. Mais ne dit rien de la nature de la pensée. D'ailleurs comment le pourrait-il personne n'a encore découvert ce mystère.
    De plus bien que tout l'environnement soit optimal, l'idée géniale est spontanée et hors contexte spatio-temporel comme il le fait remarquer. 
    Quel est la part du facteur chance/hasard ou déterminisme ? 
    Pour ma part, je pense que l'Idée est la médiane comprise entre la tension et la relaxation.
    Sinon, je vais poursuivre mes recherches concernant votre découverte sur la physique des plasma. Merci 

  7. Cédric Villani est comme Etienne Klein, ce sont deux personnes que je ne connais pas mais qui m'inspirent le plus profond des respects, autant humains, qu'intellectuels.

  8. Les idées appartiennent à tous ceux qui s'en emparent… et elles vivent leur vie, finissant par éclairer ceux qui les comprennent.

  9. Billy Meier (qui n'a pas dépassé la 5e) a fait des prédictions scientifiques il y a des années qui ont été corroborées dernièrement : voir billymeiertraductionsfr blogspot fr

  10. en faite tout un discours pour faire de la pub pour son bouquin! pas mal,et l'entendre parler,me fait penser a un loup,qui se transforme en mouton,pour manger les inviter du troupeau.

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