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Cédric Villani is a French mathematician, who was awarded the Fields Medal in 2010 (one of the highest award in the field of mathematics). He specializes in partial differential equations, Riemannian geometry and mathematical physics.

I recently listened to his talk at the Royal institution on the birth of ideas. It’s a pretty neat talk, and I was marveled by his intellect.


These are some of the ideas that got my attention in his talk.

A little disjointed blog post, I will say, given the wide scope of the talk but it touches some germane points on epistemology, science and creativity.

The Life of a Scientist (or, if you like, ‘creativist’)

Villani: “Most of the life of the researcher is not spent contemplating the good effect of the inventions. It is spent usually thinking like crazy, and failing. Failing to understand. Most of our life is spent in failure. […] In most creative job that’s also the case”

As a result of natural constraints, probability theory tells us that a scientist (or ‘creativist’) have to fail to certify the criteria for success.

And it should be noted that a scientist’s failure is golden. When you fail (and the information is adequately passed across), the odds of success immediately jumps up.

In other words, when Scientists fail, Science does the opposite.

Confirmation bias (or the art of marrying your ideas)

Villani: “[Although] science are good at correcting it’s own mistake, [However] scientists are not so good. They become attached to that idea, they want their idea to be true […] so it’s always difficult to convince this is true in such a field”

After listening to Cedric saying this, the Popperian falsification comes to mind: The best way to prove an idea is to try to disprove it (In as much as the idea is falsifiable).

Science is all about falsification not confirmation except if you are black-swan-blind.

How to predict the future

Prof. Villani relayed this conversation between a journalist, and the Great French Mathematician Henri Poincaré

Journalist: what will be the science of the 20st century?

Poincaré: If in the 18th century one has asked some scientist what will be the science of the 19th century, how much nonsense he would have said. Heavens! These thoughts prevent me from answering. I believe that surprising result will be obtained, and that’s is why I cannot tell anything about them, because if I could foresee them, I could they remain surprising. Please excuse my silence.

If we want to predict the future, our only option (at least the most realistic) is to look at the past, fortunately, the past lend us to some patterns which we can use to extrapolate into the future. On the other hand, (and unfortunately) because records have been broken in the past (stochastically), we MUST expect surprises.

Hence, like The Great Poncaire intimated, the best way to predict the future is to be carefully silent.

Ingredients needed for an idea to grow

Villani: “… We don’t know how these ideas comes, but we know the ingredients mandatory for these ideas […] I will list 7 ingredients, and these will be true for every occupation that has to do with creation, and research in particular”

1. Documentation: There is nothing new under the sky, an idea is borne out of previously documented ideas.

2. Motivation: Probably the most important of all.

3. Environment: “There is no such thing as an isolated scientist”

4. Communication: with other collaborators, for example.

5. Constraints: constraints he says are very important for creativity, as it has some ways of generating motivations. Constraints as an ingredient for creativity is not really intuitive. But on closer look myself, I found how creative I become when, for example, I shrink the amount of time needed to complete a task, or restrict myself to a 100 words blog etcetera. I think differently.

Another way to think of constraints is this: ‘necessity is the mother of invention’.

Necessity, indeed, is a form of constraints.

6. Intuition, and Hard work: Hard work (in the right direction) generates experience, and, of course, experience borne intuition.

7. Luck and Perseverance: You could say: “the more you try, the luckier you get”

He concluded with a very deep and insightful quote from Thomas Jefferson about ideas:

“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.”

(Video Credit)

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