Why French excel in math ?

Mathematics and quantitative finance, France

Since 1990, there have been 22 winners of the Fields Medal, widely regarded as the Nobel Prize of mathematics. Thirteen came from just two countries, Russia and France. Russia has more winners (seven), but more than twice the population, so the honours go to France, with six winners.

Cédric Villani, the 2010 Fields Medallist, cited national character. “Maths is an abstract way of looking at the world, which fits well with the French mentality. We apply algebra to everything.” Elite institutions help too. France’s brightest school leavers progress to the grandes écoles, which traditionally educate top scientists, administrators and presidents. For maths, you want Monsieur Villani’s alma mater, the École Normale Supérieure (ENS). All 10 French Fields Medallists learnt there. At ENS, no teacher can stay longer than 10 years. Instead of ancient dons, students get tutors at the forefront of mathematics. Many try, but only 40 mathematicians a year enter the ENS.

The French have applied their maths genius to the money markets too. The Financial Times business schools rankings suggest France leads the world in producing “financial engineering” experts, with six institutions in the top 10 masters courses in finance. France can thus claim to dominate quantitative finance, the highly mathematical specialism involved in about half of all financial trades.

They should thank Michel Crouhy. In 1986, at the École des Hautes Études Commerciales (EHESS) in Paris, he devised the world’s first masters course in financial engineering. “The business school students didn’t have good enough maths, so I said ‘Let’s take only maths graduates, engineers. I won’t have to spend forever explaining the equations.’ It worked; the EHESS still offers the world’s best finance masters course, according to the Financial Times.

“Americans told me they wanted to start a course like ours but they weren’t allowed,” says Crouhy. “Because US MBA programmes were so strong, the universities worried a finance masters would compete with their MBA and destroy the MBA’s franchise.” America’s hesitation seems to have cost them.

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One thought on “Why French excel in math ?

  1. Pingback: Math grads as non-mathematicians | Math Online Tom Circle

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