Maths and comics: release of the documentary comic book "Laurent Schwartz - The commitments of a Fields medallist"


Following on Joseph Fourier and Sophie Germain, the 3rd comic strip dedicated to illustrious people behind mathematics is out this March 13, 2024. Discover "Laurent Schwartz - Les engagements d'un médaillé Fields" ("Laurent Schwartz, the commitments of a Fields medalist"), published in French language by Petit à Petit.

This latest documentary comic focuses on Laurent Schwartz, the first French mathematician to win the Fields Medal in 1950 for his work on distribution theory. Much more than a brilliant scientist, Laurent Schwartz was at the crossroads of the social movements of his time: he spoke out against the use of torture during the Algerian war and advocated independence for Vietnam in the name of freedom for all people. A look back at the genesis of this comic-documentary with Hervé Pajot, project's instigator and a university professor at Institut Fourier (UMR5582).

Could you briefly introduce yourself?

After completing my thesis at the University of Paris-Sud (now Paris-Saclay) ) under the supervision of Guy David in geometric measurement theory, I was recruited as MCF at the University of Cergy-Pontoise , where I defended my HDR in 2002. Since 2003, I have been research professor at Institut Fourier (Grenoble Alpes University). I am also deputy director of the UFR info-maths Grenoble Alpes University.

The first Frenchman to win the Fields Medal in 1950, Laurent Schwartz was a committed mathematician. Do you remember the first time you heard about him, and what you thought of him at the time?

I first heard of Laurent Schwartz as a mathematician, when I learned about distribution theory. Then I discovered the committed man he was when I read his autobiography entitled "Un mathématicien aux prises avec le siècle" ("A mathematician grappling with the century"). I was captivated: how can you be a great mathematician, but at the same time someone who was heavily involved in high-profile political battles (the Algerian war, the Vietnam war...)? How can one person do all that (and I am not talking about his butterfly collection)? In these battles, it was important for him to know the truth. So he went to Vietnam to see for himself the disasters committed by the US army. In my (more modest!) political commitments, I have strived to be as honest as he was.

How did you come to be approached for this writing project? How did you go about writing it, in line with your scientific outlook?

I am actually the one who approached the publisher. For the first comic book on Joseph Fourier, I was looking for an original idea to commemorate the 250th anniversary of his birth. As I knew a publisher who specialized in comic documentaries, I suggested to publish a comic book on Joseph Fourier. It worked well, so we continued the adventure. I worked with the scriptwriter and the illustrator, in particular to draw up the script, and I interacted a lot with the publishing manager for the layout. Then, depending on the chapter breakdown, I asked colleagues in maths, physics, history, philosophy, etc. to write texts that completed the comic strips. I tried to coordinate everything so that it ended up coherent.

Our goal is to demonstrate that the development of a mathematical theory does not happen overnight, that it is the fruit of human labor (individual or collective).
Hervé Pajot, University Professor at Institut Fourier
Book cover
© Stefano Realdini for the Petit à Petit publishing house

Order the book

The comic-documentary is available now only in French language via the Petit à Petit, as well as here to find it in your local French bookstore.

What do you see as the advantages of this kind of scientific mediation?

Comics are a good way of reaching the general public, especially young people. For the latter, we try to attract them to scientific studies by showing them a more lively image of mathematics. In the case of the Sophie Germain comic book, the emphasis was on girls' access to scientific studies in order to encourage vocations (we worked with the Femmes et Mathématiques association). The comic is part of a wider project that includes an exhibition and a film. We'll be giving presentations to classes when the school hosts the exhibition. This strengthens the links between the university and secondary education.

Why is it important to show the people behind mathematics, and their interactions with society?

For many people, maths stopped with Pythagoras and Euclid. We describe the lives of 19th or 20th century mathematicians (with interactions with current mathematics) to show that maths is not a dead science. We try to talk about the applications of maths (for example, signal processing for Joseph Fourier, cryptography for Sophie Germain) when many people think maths are useless.

The goal of these comic books is to present mathematics in a different light, and to challenge these preconceived ideas. Take Joseph Fourier's analysis, for example, which we tearn at university. It is a difficult theory to learn. I think it is great to realize that behind this theory, there is a real person with an extraordinary life, who had to work hard to develop his theory and get it recognized. Reading this comic book about Joseph Fourier brings his theory to life.

As a former deputy director of AMIES, I find that showing how maths interacts with society gives a different image of maths. These interactions can be scientific (Joseph Fourier was the first to mention the greenhouse effect, and he also wrote an article explaining how to insulate an apartment as efficiently as possible) or political (with the commitments of Laurent Schwartz).

The exhibition on Laurent Schwartz organized at the Institut Fourier will also mark the release of the comic-documentary. Who is your target audience ?

This exhibition targets a wide audience. Our previous exhibitions have been shown in French middle schools, high schools, universities, youth clubs and so on. They are itinerant: either we lend our panels, or we send the files. A YouTube film and various resources available on the Institut Fourier website complement them.

Mathematicians are often thought of as people who live in their own world, outside the real world. The example of Joseph Fourier, who was Prefect of Isère, France, and the political commitment of Laurent Schwartz, show that this is not always the case.
Hervé Pajot, University Professor at Institut Fourier
© Université Grenoble Alpes - Institut Fourier

Laurent Schwartz : des mathématiques à l'engagement politique

As part of its series of exhibitions on mathematicians who have left their mark on their discipline, and to mark the release of the comic book-documentary, the Institut Fourier will be retracing the story of Laurent Schwartz through an exhibition of posters and a documentary film.

The exhibition opens on March 25, 2024, at 2pm, with mathematical presentations, an exhibition tour, experiments and a buffet.

Further information here.