Maths and physics, a love story

Denis Guedj brings one of his plays to CERN. The writer and mathematician is working on a new novel in which LHC research figures prominently.
In Denis Guedj’s plays, the number One is a self-absorbed character, Zero is not to be underestimated, and the Line Segment wants the Curve to straighten out. In his novels, mathematical entities come to life—and turn out to have exciting stories to tell. Denis Guedj is a mathematician and professor of the history of science and epistemology at the University of Paris VIII; over the years he has also indulged a personal passion for bringing maths to the stage. His novels and plays reach a broad public. Among his notable successes is a crime thriller called “The Parrot’s Theorem”, which has been translated into 20 languages. The popularity of his work owes much to the author’s refusal to be didactic. “If it works, it’s because I don’t try to teach maths,” he explains. “I tell stories whose characters happen to be mathematical entities. But the story is always the main thing.”

At last week’s “Fête de la science”, Denis Guedj kept spectators enthralled with his play “One zero show”, put on at the Globe of Science and Innovation. The show, created in 1994, features the numbers one and zero as they engage in a power struggle, using mathematical operations as weapons.

Denis Guedj’s decision to stage the play at CERN comes from a long-standing relationship between the playwright and the Laboratory. During the LEP era, he wrote a screenplay set at CERN. The project never came to fruition. “But three years ago I decided that it was time once again to immerse myself in the research being done at CERN, and to write a novel about the LHC,” he explains. The novel, entitled “Collisions”, tells the story of a collision at CERN—so far, no surprises. But it’s not quite what one might expect. It’s the story of the chance encounter of a man and a woman, and through them, the encounter of two worlds. CERN isn’t just a backdrop to the story. As his readers have come to expect, Denis Guedj masterfully weaves some of the great enigmas of physics into the plot. “Ironically, this isn’t particularly easy to do with physics,” he emphasises. “You can’t get more dramatic than a meeting between matter and antimatter. Telling the story of such an encounter would be trivial, the challenge is to give the story suspense.” The author is currently putting the finishing touches to his novel, which is to be published next April.

In the meantime, a different question plagues CERN’s “communicators”. Among members of the general public, mathematics and fundamental physics are often perceived as esoteric disciplines that have little social relevance. Accordingly, the question of their usefulness in a world of short-term profit is often raised. “We have to fight against the ideology of short-term utility,” stresses Denis Guedj. “You can’t reduce human beings to a collection of bare needs. When I’m asked what mathematics are good for, I say, first of all, that maths are my living. And then I ask, what is love good for?”

by CERN Bulletin