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March 5: Laurent Schwartz and the Fields Medal

March 5, 2014
laurent_schwartz_largeFrench mathematician Laurent Moise Schwartz, who was awarded the Fields Medal for mathematical achievement in 1950 (the first French person to win it), was born into a prominent Alsatian family of scientists on this date in 1915. A Trotskyist and a Jew, he had to assume false identities and hide several times to avoid being deported by the Vichy regime. Schwartz’s politics also made it difficult for him to obtain a visa to come to the U.S. to receive the Fields Medal. As a public intellectual in post-war France, he campaigned actively against the Algerian war and signed Manifeste des 121, which encouraged young men to refuse to serve in the French army. This protest resulted in his suspension from his academic post for two years. Schwartz also publicly protested the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, and campaigned actively against rightwing forces in France. He was “one of the 20th century’s greatest exponents of mathematical analysis,” wrote the Guardian in its obituary, “the part of pure mathematics dealing with limiting operations such as the calculus and its ramifications. His most important contribution was his theory of ‘distributions’ or ‘generalised functions’ . . . a classic case of the interplay between applications and theory, and between physics and mathematics.” Schwartz was also a butterfly expert, with a collection of more than 200,000 insects. He died at 87 in 2002. “What are mathematics helpful for? Mathematics are helpful for physics. Physics helps us make fridges. Fridges are made to contain spiny lobsters, and spiny lobsters help mathematicians who eat them and have hence better abilities to do mathematics, which are helpful for physics, which helps us make fridges . . .” —Laurent Schwartz