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Hugo Duminil-Copin meets students from the area, in the places where he grew up

Science and society Article published on 25 May 2023 , Updated on 25 May 2023

This article was originally published in L'Édition N.21.

On 19 and 20 April, over 500 secondary and high school students from the Massy area (Essonne) had the opportunity to meet Hugo Duminil-Copin, a professor at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques (IHES) and the University of Geneva, and Fields 2022 medal winner, at two talks specially organised for them in the region. The talks were a blend of personal history and motivations, the playful and creative aspects of mathematics, and overturning preconceived ideas. All this was a source of great pleasure for the young participants and the teaching staff present. 

“I had been talking to my father for a while about organising a talk in the area. The Fields Medal and the media coverage of this award have no doubt speeded everything up. I wanted one of my first talks to be in the place where I grew up,” says Hugo Duminil-Copin, winner of the highest distinction in mathematics in 2022 for his work on the theory of percolation. “Hugo always told me that he would like to give a presentation to the students of the Secondary school of the Guyonnerie, in Bures-sur-Yvette, where he himself went to school. I wanted to make this wish come true after he won the Fields Medal,” confirmed François Duminil, Hugo’s father and Vice-Principal at Alain Fournier high school in Orsay. 

On 19 April, 370 secondary school students from the Massy area (Essonne) and their fifty or so accompanying adults had the pleasure of meeting the mathematician at a lecture given in their honour in the Michelin amphitheatre of the Bouygues building at CentraleSupélec, right in the heart of the Université Paris- Saclay campus. Organised by La Diagonale, in collaboration with the IHES and the Regional Board of Education of Versailles, the meeting was chaired by the journalist Fred Courant, from L’Esprit Sorcier. The next day, nearly 160 students from the Massicois area attended a second talk, organised for them at the High School of the Chevreuse Valley, in Gif-sur-Yvette. 

Initially intended for the two secondary schools in Orsay and Bures-sur-Yvette, these talks eventually involved all the secondary schools in the Massy region, i.e. 22 secondary schools and 12 6th-form colleges. “We left it up to each school’s maths team to decide which classes to target and which students to involve,” says François Duminil.


Two approaches, one goal

Lasting one and a half hours, each talk was divided up into a presentation by Hugo, a presentation of his background, his profession and his research topic, and a question and answer session with the audience. However, the approach used for each talk was different. The talk for 6th-form students was more scientific, “less about entertainment,” admits Hugo. It focused more on his research work, which is about phase transitions, the abrupt changes of matter in relation to mathematics. “I am specifically studying phase transitions in porosity models and those related to magnetism. For example, the fact that when you heat up a magnet, it loses its magnetisation.” 

Talking to the students, the mathematician started from the game theory to bring the students to the percolation theory, the notion of random labyrinth. “I used the Hex game for this. Hex is a strategic board game for two players, the hidden manifestation of percolation. Before the conference, I handed out a little booklet to the students to explain the game.”

At the end of the event, the young students were ecstatic: “I found the demonstrations very interesting, he explained mathematics to us while remaining very accessible. It makes you want to do math!” summarizes a schoolgirl. 


Scientific mediation: the other side of the same passion 

If popularising his research is not an easy task, it is one that lies close to the heart of the Fields 2022 medal winner. “It’s an exercise I love, even if I sometimes feel like an impostor because it’s not my job. It’s a complicated task that requires a lot of work, especially in the area of mathematics, because you have to find the right balance between talking enough about mathematics and not losing your audience,” he says. “Coming from a family where education is important – it is my parents’ profession and also my wife’s – the handing down of knowledge is fundamental for me, at all levels.” 

Hugo does not conceal his other ambition: to shatter the image all too often associated with mathematics. “We often see it as something inhuman, because of our memories of somewhat disembodied theorems. What I would like to show is that, on the contrary, mathematics leaves room for creativity and that personal taste is important.” This ambition echoes the work of scientific mediation initiated at Université Paris-Saclay. “When I was young, I didn’t have too many images of scientists or even people just working in science,” he recalls. “I would like to show that a scientist is someone who can laugh and joke, and be enthusiastic about his results. A scientist is a man or woman who leads a normal family life.” 

While 2023 has been declared a “year of promotion of mathematics in schools” by the Ministry of National Education and Youth, and the teaching of mathematics is struggling somewhat in France, Hugo would not be against finding vocations. “I think that science outreach can be a real help to teachers to rehabilitate mathematics, to show that it is not only a matter of exams and marks,” he concludes.


Watch the replay of the conference on the Université Paris-Saclay's YouTube channel: