IHES: You are starting a new stage in your career as a mathematician. How do you feel about it?
Laure Saint-Raymond: I can’t deny that I’m experiencing a twinge of sadness, as I leave the ENS de Lyon where I have spent five wonderful years. I enjoyed the dynamism of the mathematics laboratory, which is always at the forefront of its scientific development and its community commitments (dissemination and awareness of research, open publications, reduction of the carbon footprint, etc.). I also greatly appreciated the straightforward and exciting collaborations with the physics laboratory as well as the wealth and strength of the research network in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes. I will maintain a small presence there to continue to work on geophysical fluids and environmental issues, especially with the Institut des mathématiques de la Planète Terre.
Of course, I am also somewhat awestruck to be joining IHES, this prestigious institution which for the moment is more of a myth than a natural place in which to do my research. On the one hand, the list of permanent professors who have worked here sets the bar very high in terms of the depth and impact of their work. But on the other hand, the themes that have been developed here so far are quite foreign to me. In my mind, IHES refers to great names in mathematics that I don’t necessarily associate with faces, or to works that have revolutionized whole areas of the discipline but that I essentially don’t understand… It’s hard to identify something I can latch on to.
A blank page… perhaps that’s what really stimulates me! At the same time, this move represents great freedom, and the responsibility of making a new dynamic emerge, to make its own mark. I realize how lucky I am, even if it sometimes feels quite dizzying. IHES provides a very positive atmosphere for individual research work, while offering many opportunities to bring in foreign students or colleagues. Its scientific environment is extremely promising, bringing together the university in Orsay and the institutions and research centers in the Saclay area. I have no doubt that this mixture of calm and bustle will lead to unexpected encounters and will raise fruitful questions.
How would you describe your approach to mathematics?
I have neither the technical strength nor the will to tackle head-on the difficult conjectures to which some mathematicians devote their entire lives in a long arm-wrestling match. I prefer the side roads, the curiosities of physics, the surprising connections between apparently distant disciplinary fields… I like mathematics that formalizes simple intuitions, that can be shared.
In a way, mathematics is at the confluence of scientific reasoning and artistic creation. Not all mathematicians have the same tastes, but they attach importance to the notion of beauty. This is what I hope to be able to pass on to my students and more widely to the people I meet at events aimed at the general public.
One can try to convince people of the usefulness of mathematics, but that can be a slippery slope. However, one can without moderation marvel at all the ideas that slowly take seed and end up blooming where one did not necessarily expect them, at all the scattered abstract constructions that end up being strongly connected.
This magic of mathematics must make people dream… beyond the circle of mathematicians!