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Readers become Witnesses – Cédric Villani

BLOG: Heidelberg Laureate Forum

Laureates of mathematics and computer science meet the next generation
Heidelberg Laureate Forum

Cédric Villani is not only one of the greatest mathematicians of this century (Fields Medal in 2010), he cuts a dramatic figure – always with one of his special spider brooches placed on the left side of his suit.

In his autobiographical book ‘Théorème vivant” (2012) he gave insights in the inner soul of a mathematician. Time to talk with him about science communication. He was so kind as to do so after the Tuesday’s panel discussion at the hlf13.

Beatrice Lugger: Do you think there exists a necessity for scientists to learn how to communicate for example to lay people?

Cédric Villani: Nobody should consider communication as not necessary. You will always need it. It is important for scientists to learn how to communicate about their research and ideas. This necessity exists for various reasons. For the general audience it is important to understand what scientists are doing. For the politicians it is important to understand why they give money to the scientists.

For the scientists themselves it is important to see they are connected to the people and won’t hold this depressing view of isolation from the rest. Preparing and doing communication also helps scientists to get a better, a global view of their field. What are the challenges? You learn to pick up the lines of history. By explaining your research you yourself understand better what you are doing. This is by the way a general rule of life.

Cédric Villani and Beatrice Lugger at the HLF13
Image on the courtesy of Beatrice Lugger

BL: Because you have to get deeper into details and see the bigger picture at the same time?

CV: When you explain certain things to a general audience it is not about going deeper and deeper into details. In contrary it means getting upwards to the global view. In such a way large-scale patterns appear. So you see what the stakes are. What are the grand goals. These things can be quite important and mind changing.

BL: Have you ever had a chance to improve your communication skills?

CV: I myself was trained in communication several years before I was honored with the Fields Medal. Well it was not really a training. It was more like an event with a couple of animators of two days, where a dozen of directors of laboratories learned how to deal with different interview and communication situations. So this was not a master-teacher situation. It was more an experience.

These two days really changed my life, because I learned the basic principles of science communication and from then on could train and improve them over the years. And little by little you even get natural reflexes. So when the time came for Radio – or TV-Interviews I was prepared and able to handle more and more complicated live situations.

BL: How do you prepare yourself before an interview?

CV: Communication takes place in various numbers of situations and for different audiences. For example with science journalist or a person who is more a moderator than a journalist or directly with lay people.

And the context of the situation plays a role of what you will be asked. In certain countries for examples it is normal to give you a list with main topics and questions in advance – to help you in your preparations. In other countries this is considered as a no go, as something that will break the spontaneity.

I personally am in favor of the preparation, because I think it is better to know things in advance and reflect about them.

BL: And what if, you don’t get radio- or TV-interview questions in advance?

CV: You should at least ask yourself beforehand what you would like to say – independent of what questions will be asked. Very often you also have to deal with questions that are not relevant. Then you have to find a way to answer with something more relevant. This very often is possible.

BL: This sounds very professional. What where your first experiences?

CV: I remember very vividly the first time I was on national radio. This feels very direct. There is the microphone, the light shows it is your turn. In this very moment you know, all you say will get live into the ears of ten thousands or a hundred thousands of people. You cannot correct this. This has been sent. There is a distinct feeling of something dangerous. Little by little you learn how to feel more secure in such situations.

BL: You have written a great book about your life as a mathematician. Therefore you have taken your time and had the chance to decide about the story. If I might say so, you also showed us the art of science with lots of pages full of mathematical formulae.

CV: This book is not about understanding science. It is more about how science is done and the person behind science. What are the results? How to deal with them? And so on. It tries to really put you in a situation where science is all around you. Let me say so: While the essence of science communication is about simplifying and using terms that people know – like if you want to explain your complicated job to your child– and tell in simple words what you do; this book is the contrary.

It is as if you take your child with you into the office or lab. You don’t explain anything. But the child is aware of the atmosphere. It sees what is going on, how people talk to each other, what they talk about, how they behave, what is the rhythm and so on. This means to witness with a certain indecency what really is the life of a mathematician. In this sense a book is a great way to communicate directly to the people. To communicate a meaning, but also to make people think. They feel very close to you. They even might identify with certain aspects of your life.

BL: What do you think of science communication via social media? You personally don’t do this as far as I know.

CV: I recommend to each scientist to find his or her way to communicate to the broader audience in their personal way. I have my personal solution. I don’t use twitter and I don’t use a classical blog, because the way I am organized, I would be unable to feed these streams enough and in real time. But there are other people – also in mathematics and computer sciences – who do it extremely well.

BL: May we expect a second book written by you soon?

CV: I actually have four further book projects. They won’t be published very soon, but if I don’t disappear through a tragic accident, hopefully I will be able to handle them and experiment with them – all in different formats, about different subjects, but related to my work in one way or the other.

BL: Great. So we might expect to have something interesting to read in the near future! Thank you for your time and ideas!

After this short interview we walked together to the socalled “Oktoberfest” at the Marstall Caféteria in Heidelberg. There after one beer together he found a niche in the Mensa, where he settled himself on the floor. People were firstly cueing for getting some food in the Mensa. Later they were cueing for a talk with Villani. The whole evening, he was engaged in discussions.

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ist stellvertretende Wissenschaftliche Direktorin des Nationalen Instituts für Wissenschaftskommunikation (Nawik), Karlsruhe. Sie koordiniert dieses Konferenzblog. Beatrice ist Diplom-Chemikerin und seit über 20 Jahren als Wissenschaftsjournalistin für diverse deutsche Magazine und Tageszeitungen aktiv. Als Social Media Expertin hat sie unter anderem die Scienceblogs in Deutschland aufgebaut. In ihrem Blog ‚Quantensprung‘ und in ihren Tweets als @BLugger schreibt sie vornehmlich über Wissenschaftskommunikation.