Fascinating research into mathematics, history and the Chinese language

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Prof. Dr. Dr. Andrea Breard teaches and conducts research at the Chair of Sinology with a focus on the intellectual and cultural history of China. (Foto: Gudrun-Holde Ortner)

Prof. Andrea Bréard has been working as a Humboldt professor at FAU since February 2021. A mathematics historian and sinologist, she investigates the history of mathematics in China and explores links to economic history, political history and social history.
Numbers have a history of their own, and they shape the history of people and societies. Prof. Bréard researches the history of Chinese mathematics from ancient times until the present day. Rather than focusing only on the history of mathematics in China, however, she also traces the intellectual history of the country and hopes to encourage cultural exchange between Asia and Europe.

Uncovering unexpected connections

‘The connections are what interest me,’ explains the acclaimed researcher, who previously held a professorship at Université Paris-Saclay in France. ‘I am passionate about connections between different cultures, and especially the interfaces between mathematics and languages.’ This is now the subject area she is focusing on as part of her Humboldt professorship at FAU. The most prestigious international research prize in Germany entails funding of 3.5 million euros over a period of five years. ‘I am thrilled to have my work recognised by others like this, and it will allow me to explore my ideas in new, exciting ways. At last, I am in a position to employ several staff for my projects,’ says Prof. Bréard. She is one of three women and nine men to be awarded a Humboldt professorship in 2021. Outstanding female researchers account for 25 percent of the total this year, after only averaging roughly 15 percent in the twelve years before according to the Alexander-von-Humboldt Foundation.
‘In France, female researchers are much more commonplace than in Germany,’ explains the professor, who was married to a Frenchman and has two adult children. ‘I never felt that being a female mathematician was anything special while in France.’ It was quite different while she was growing up in Munich. ‘I always enjoyed maths, it felt like detective work. I found languages easy to learn – and that combination didn’t exactly help to make me particularly popular with my classmates. They thought I was a swot,’ she remembers. After leaving school, Bréard studied mathematics and computer science at Technische Universität München, at the same time as studying Chinese studies at LMU. A combination which led to her taking some rather unusual holiday jobs. She remembers, with a laugh, ‘one year I gave a computer course in Peking for Chinese employees at Siemens.’ She then completed her Master’s degree in China in the history of economics, before moving to Paris, Berlin and Harvard to complete her doctoral degrees. After that, she spent some time in New York, before working at Université de Lille, École Polytechnique, Universität Heidelberg and finally Université Paris-Saclay.

New perspectives for science

As a Humboldt professor at FAU, Bréard hopes to bring new interdisciplinary perspectives to the history of science and strengthen prognostic research. At the same time, she has been appointed the new Director of the International Consortium for Research in the Humanities ‘Fate, Freedom and Prognostication. Strategies for Coping with the Future in East Asia and Europe’, and intends giving the Consortium a more permanent structure. ‘I’ll need to go jogging in the forest a lot,’ she jokes. ‘I always have the best ideas when I’m out for a run, that’s why I always take my running shoes with me wherever I go.’
Her current work focuses on the interfaces between language and mathematics. Together with the Chair of Computational Corpus Linguistics at FAU, Bréard is investigating the language of Chinese mathematical texts. ‘Up until the 20th century, Chinese maths books were written in natural language,’ explains the mathematician and expert in Chinese studies. ‘When you open one of these books, there is nothing to indicate at first glance that it is not a literary work. Although the language is, of course, rather more stilted.’ The team is now researching to what extent the texts follow a certain formula and how they have evolved over time. The first step involves compiling an extensive database of Chinese mathematical texts. In another project, Bréard is investigating how to quantify natural and social phenomena from a perspective of global history. ‘China has always collected extensive data on the country and society,’ she explains. ‘How are these data processed and used for statistics? What influence do they have on politics?’ These are the questions Bréard is investigating in her position as a mathematics historian, putting them into the context of global history. One of her aims is also to break down the juxtaposition of Asia and Europe.


Der aktuelle alexander hat unter anderem folgende Themen: Ausgrenzung und Extremismus überwinden, eine App um Geschichte nacherleben zu können, 5G-Technologie, unsere neue Humboldt-Professorin, Studi-Start-ups und Uni-Start-up-Programme, ein Senkrechtstarter und unseren neuen FAU-Ambassador.

FAU-Magazin alexander Nr. 115 (April 2021)

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