Interview with mathematician Jean-Pierre Serre Abel Prize laureate and youngest Fields Medal prize winner When did I start to love math? My earliest memory is from primary school, learning the multiplication tables We were learning the table of 8 which is one of the most difficult And then, on my own, I do not know why, I started to wonder about the multiplication table of nine and I realized that it was actually very easy ! 9, 18, 27 – the sum of the two numbers is always 9 and I was delighted. It was probably a sign that I liked it. After high school, I read math textbooks from classes above mine, just for the fun of it and I was asking myself many questions. Being good at math, the usual way to do it for a living was through preparatory classes So I made one year of preparatory classes I took the entrance exam of the Ecole Normale [teacher training college]
although in principle after one year there was no chance I should pass, but hey, I did then once at the Ecole Normale, you begin to understand that math is alive You see mathematical journals, for example There you come to do math, but cannot yet No, it takes several years to reach the adequate level when you can do something, and even then, there is no certainty of achieving anything I have a pretty bad memory of my first two years
at the CNRS [top level scientific research center] – I wasn’t finding anything After two years, I finally hit the motherlode It was the subject of my doctorate thesis, I was awarded the Fields Medal… There was a math topic that was blocked, and I found out how to unblock it The N. Bourbaki group is an anonymous group of mathematicians which was founded in the 30s and its goal was initially to write a handbook for math 101 It soon changed path, and produced books that help working efficiently in math There are many sectors of research in mathematics The belief behind Bourbaki was that there is a possible unity for all those fields It was very important The Bourbaki group hired me – actually… It’s worse than that You know, when people organize a party somewhere there are people called “crashers”, who invite themselves Well, I crashed one of Bourbaki’s meeting and they invited me to the next meeting because they thought I was asking good questions and two meetings later, they took me as a member At that time, I still had not accomplished anything The best ideas in math are personal ones, I’m quite sure of that but concerning those researchers who are completely isolated it takes great intellectual force to continue working for ten or twenty years on a subject when you’re on your own It was never my case I do not think we [mathematicians] are very different from anyone, But there is still a tendancy, for people with, let’s politely call it a “difficult temperament”, to do math.