The Florilege of the Popularization of Mathematics


Some months ago a new website was born in France related to the popularization of mathematics; it is called the Florilège de la popularisation des mathématiques; its address is and its main aim is to inform about all actions and activities concerning the popularization of mathematics having taken place in France, or in French-speaking countries, in the past, present, and, as time goes on, in the future.

The idea behind the creation of the Florilège was that it would be a shame to lose the rich memory of everything that has been done in the past, about the authors and the places and about so many interesting activities, texts, films, etc., which could become a source of inspiration for others in the future. And unexpected treasures were actually found! The team that prepared the database feeding the Florilège website discovered that apart from the actions and publications that were well known to them, there were, and sometimes far away in time, countless actions and very interesting initiatives to promote mathematics in the direction of the general public, students, young people, etc. For instance, who knew that George Sand's first lover was a great popularizer of science: the handsome Stéphane Ajasson de Gransagne (1802-1846)? Did you notice the names of the mathematicians affixed in gold letters on the Eiffel Tower?

There are two layers in the Florilège website: the underlying database which contains a large number of files concerning actions or products of the popularization of mathematics in French, books, videos, films, comics, exhibitions, blogs, games, etc. but also the actors/authors behind them, the associations organizing them, or the places where they took place. At the time of the launch of the website there were more than 1300 records in this database, and by now there must be at least one hundred more. But the richness of the database is not everything, far from it. In such a website you need an easy-to-use interface that invites and facilitates its consultation. Therefore, after the important step of the collection of information, there was a long time of reflection about how to structure all the collected data, and how to present it in a pleasant, informative and inviting way. 

The data and files have been classified into four categories: READ (Lire), SEE (Voir) , CHALLENGES (Défis) and SURF (Surfer). In READ one naturally finds all kinds of publications, magazines and books, but also comics, etc. In SEE we find videos, documentaries and films that talk about mathematics intending to popularise them, but also exhibitions and conferences, and all that is related to "Mathematics and Art" as well. The CHALLENGE section lists games, rallies, puzzles and contests, as well as summer schools that have to do with popularization. Finally, in SURF we find activities related to the internet, such as blogs, websites and web-TVs.

Naturally, publications (books, magazines, etc.) are the oldest way to popularize mathematics, and science in general. At the beginning of the Florilège project, it was decided to exclude the pedagogical works intended for the teaching of mathematics and to keep only the books and publications aiming to  popularize mathematics in the direction of a wider cultivated audience. Thanks to the immense knowledge of two historians of mathematics, Bernard Bru and Pierre Crépel, whose invaluable indications were decisive for the history of mathematical popularization, it appeared that the first publications of interest were related to entertainment as for instance the "Problèmes plaisants et délectables" (1612) of the mathematician and humanist Bachet de Méziriac (1581 - 1638). It was therefore necessary to go back more than a century before the publication of the Encyclopedia of Diderot and d'Alembert (1751 - 1772)!

The READ sections correspond to the "classical" activities related to the popularization of sciences in general, and mathematics in particular. But it is clear that the current evolution of communication and media favors a lot the SEE section, and that the activities appearing in the SURF section will become in the future one of the most important popularizing media. But all this would not be so interesting without three elements that complete the website of the Florilège: (1) a very good search engine; (2) a "Participation" tab that allows anyone to propose information that is missing in the website. Indeed, no one can pretend to know everything, and the Florilège team is fully aware that much must be missing. By opening the site to external proposals and contributions, we want to overcome these possible gaps or omissions. Finally, (3) another feature that adds interest to the website is a series of texts reflecting about the meaning of popularization and also of introduction to the activities related to the different sections of the website. These texts were all written by Michèle Chouchan, former producer and coordinator at France Culture radio station and author of essays on science.

Announcing new activities is not a priori one of the goals of this website, but the Florilège team decided to create two sections, "Breaking news"  and "Zoom", to highlight new files that recently enriched the database and that could be of large interest. Also, every four months there will be a newsletter featuring interesting coming activities and facts of the past that could be good to know.

All colleagues interested in the popularization of mathematics, and reading French, are invited to consult and use this website. And those who will like it are also encouraged to make it known among people outside our community, teachers, students and the general public. This website is dedicated to the memory, yes, but willingly, to a living memory, so that the database continues to enrich itself continuously,  and so that what is done now and in the near future remains also in the memory, in order to inspire and motivate other people in the more distant future.

Maria J. Esteban, on behalf of the Florilège team composed of Mireille Chaleyat-Maurel, Stéphane Cordier, Michel Darche and Maria J. Esteban



Maria J. Esteban

Maria J. Esteban is a senior researcher at CNRS and works at the University Paris-Dauphine. Her research area includes nonlinear partial differential equations, especially variational methods. Her term as President of ICIAM ended October 1, 2019.