version française

Where should mathematics and theoretical physics be practiced?

Organization of the premises

The scientific heritage of IHES

Bois-Marie stately home (Seine et Oise), 1920s

The “magic of Bois-Marie”

Based on a letter by Christopher Zeeman, 1968

Caretaker’s home and cafeteria, 1964
Science building, North wing, 1964
Scientists heading for the administration building, 1964.
Music pavilion seen from the park
Music pavilion seen from the science building

Why do mathematicians need laboratories?

Physicists were used to working in laboratories. This was not the case for French mathematicians, who traditionally worked from home and met at the many seminars created after the Second World War. Up until the 1960s, the mathematics department of the French National Scientific Research Center (CNRS) mainly requested funds for library collections, secretarial staff and the creation of a conference center for mathematics. Nevertheless, the idea of having a place for meetings and discussions and enough room for offices was clearly taking root. As IHES was establishing itself, the Ecole Polytechnique Mathematics Center was created by Laurent Schwartz in 1965, as was the first mathematics laboratory affiliated with the CNRS, in Strasbourg in 1966. There were to be many other such projects.

Meeting areas at IHES

Since its creation, IHES has always encouraged impromptu discussions among researchers. Lunchtime conversations at the cafeteria produce notes – sketched on scraps of paper or even scribbled on disposable tablecloths. Discussions continue around a board, chalk in hand, in the lounge where tea is served or in a corner of the science building.
Lunch in the cafeteria, 1980s Scientific discussion between Hugo Duminil-Copin and a student

“I have also spoken to Miss Rolland about offices for our invited mathematicians and for me. I am well aware that it would be impractical to accommodate everyone, even the permanent professors, with a personal office at Bois-Marie, given that IHES is in a transition period and space is still lacking. For my part, I would be very happy to share an office with one or even two invited researchers, if necessary. They would find it useful to have somewhere else than their home for discussions. If I have understood Miss Rolland’s explanations correctly, she seemed to find it difficult for even that sort of arrangement to continue, with a large number of physicists in Bures. She judged that all the available offices should be reserved for physicists, as mathematicians are not very used to having discussions outside their homes. If that were so, I do not see any benefit in gathering a number of mathematicians together in Bures, rather than leaving them isolated in various parts of Paris as we used to.”

Alexander Grothendieck to Léon Motchane, August 4, 1962.