Research Seminar - Painlevé’s Bombs: Mathematical Authority and the Foundation of Syria and Lebanon

When and Where

Wednesday, March 09, 2022 2:00 pm to 4:00 pm


Adrien Zakar, Professor at the IHPST


This article examines how the transformation of mathematical culture shaped governance in the interwar French Empire, especially during the mathematician Paul Painlevé’s time as President of the Council of Ministers in 1925, and his subsequent appointments as Minister of War and Aviation in 1925-1930 and 1930-1933, respectively. At a time when people projected a unique kind of prestige on differential equations, the mathematician participated in critical historical processes around the Mediterranean. These included the consolidation of colonial rule in Morocco, the institutional foundation of Syria and Lebanon, and the design of a comprehensive strategy to protect the metropole in the event of a second world war. While these issues were viewed as inextricably linked, I focus here on the role played by interwar colonial theaters of operations, particularly 1920s Syrian revolts, in validating an emerging mathematical culture among bureaucrats, military officers, and journalists, critically shaping the political history of territories under French rule. By examining the intellectual genealogies and military encounters that constituted Painlevé’s time in power, I argue that the so-called “intuitionist movement” in French mathematics generated not only well-defined cultural tropes and ways of performing mathematical authority, but also ways of knowing and mapping that were deployed in military strategy and consequently shaped political history in multiple colonies, and in the metropole. As a story of global circulation, that of mathematical culture and of techniques of representation like cartography involved local adaptations that retained residues of contributions and contestations by dynamic and locally grounded genealogies of knowledge