The strength of the French mathematical school goes back to the XVIIth century, with major figures like Descartes, Viète, Fermat or Pascal. But history shows that periods when French mathematics thrived alternated with less fruitful times. The factors are diverse, ranging from the role of singular geniuses to social and political causes: structure of higher education and research institutions, political upheavals, wars…

We will focus on the last 150 years: in the period before 1870, Germany had become the dominant scientific power, major advances were being made in England and Italy, to the great dismay of French scientists. In 1870, France was defeated by Prussia, the Emperor was overthrown, and a very favorable period started, allowing the emergence of a remarkable generation of French mathematicians. World War I had a disastrous effect on science (not only on science, of course), abruptly bringing the momentum to a halt. The reconstruction took some years: it is only in the 1950s that French mathematics flourished one again. By that time, however, mathematics had become much more specialized, and applied mathematics were left behind. It took again many years to reach a more balanced landscape where the pure and applied parts can thrive.

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Last updated: 19 Jun 2024