The story is well known, but not certain: Alfred Nobel, inventor of dynamite and jealous of a “mathematician” who would have seduced the woman he was courting, would have ousted this discipline in his will awarding the precious Nobel prizes. In reality, it is more likely that the Swedish industrialist, who wanted to distinguish progress useful to humanity, did not see the concrete interest of mathematics.
Either way, there is no such thing as a Nobel in mathematics. There is, on the other hand, a well-known Fields Medal, founded by the Canadian mathematician John Charles Fields, and an Abel Prize, awarded by the King of Norway, closer to the Nobel in its form and endowment. The latter will reveal on Wednesday March 17 the winner (s) of the 2021 edition. And against the tide of incessant announcements on the level “Catastrophic” French schoolchildren in mathematics, tricolor research is defending itself well.
The Fields Medal has decorated twelve French people so far, and the Abel Prize, four. France thus comes second among the winning countries, behind the United States. “ But the researchers who received these awards were trained decades ago. Since then, the level of the French in mathematics has plummeted ”, alert Laurent Lafforgue, professor at the Institute of Higher Scientific Studies and himself Fields Medalist in 2002. “Today we find ourselves with young people entering university without knowing how to add fractions! he continues. Perhaps in 30 years France will no longer have a Fields medal or an Abel prize. “
“ We always cultivate an excellent level in fairly elitist sectors, tempers Albert Cohen, mathematician at the Sorbonne University. But the general level has undeniably fallen when it should be aligned from the top! “ The two experts see it as the result of several factors: fewer hours of math teaching in the common base, poorer teacher training and the temptation to go digital.
“ Performing simple calculations without a calculator allows you to familiarize yourself with numbers and the mathematical approach ”, observes Laurent Lafforgue. “Mathematics is a form of logic and reflection, abounds Albert Cohen. To lose in mathematical culture is to lose in capacity for understanding, in scientific analysis and to risk having citizens who let themselves be fooled by poorly presented figures or reasoning. “