In 2010, French mathematician Cédric Villani received the Fields Medal, the most coveted prize in mathematics, in recognition of a proof which he devised with his close collaborator Clément Mouhot to explain one of the most surprising theories in classical physics. Birth of a Theorem is Villani's own account of the years leading up to the award. It invites readers inside the mind of a great mathematician as he wrestles with the most important work of his career.
But you don't have to understand nonlinear Landau damping to love Birth of a Theorem. It doesn't simplify or overexplain; rather, it invites readers into collaboration. Villani's diaries, emails, and musings enmesh you in the process of discovery. You join him in unproductive lulls and late-night breakthroughs. You're privy to the dining-hall conversations at the world's greatest research institutions. Villani shares his favorite songs, his love of manga, and the imaginative stories he tells his children. In mathematics, as in any creative work, it is the thinker's whole life that propels discovery—and with Birth of a Theorem, Cédric Villani welcomes you into his.
French mathematician Villani illuminates his year leading up to winning the Fields Medal, alternating between technical descriptions of his work and insights into his personality. The author's stories for his children, interpretations of his dreams, and descriptions of his late-night tea-stealing escapades offer a fascinating picture of his life. The math is mostly incomprehensible, even to professional mathematicians, and little of it contributes to an understanding of the author's process. But the narrative is enjoyable anyway, and most of the work on the proof can be followed in the less technical correspondence between Villani and his colleagues. Of wider interest than the particulars of the math is the context: Villani chronicles his meetings with eminent mathematicians and describes the mathematical institutes he visits, providing a view of the math community not often seen by the general public. His energy and passion for his work show through, making the writing feel genuine and honest. A few biographical passages veer in strange, navel-gazing directions, but there is no air of pretention on the author's part. Though heavy on advanced math, Villani's book eloquently humanizes mathematicians and is inexplicably fascinating even for the layperson.