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August 6, 2008

Visiting Grothendieck

Posted by John Baez

Some people try to climb Mt. Everest or find an ivory-billed woodpecker; others attempt to track down the mysterious Alexander Grothendieck, who left home in 1991 and never came back. It’s probably not a wise thing to do. But surely someone is bound to try! After all, when perhaps the most visionary mathematician of the century simply goes and disappears, people are left with many questions.

Michael Barr pointed this out on the category theory mailing list:

Here’s a quote, just to get you interested…

A quote:

“Oh my!” Dr. Grothendieck muttered aloud, “I’ll have to call him right away! I can’t allow anyone to come out here!”

He carried the telephone over to a table and connected it to an outlet. No one answered that morning. When he called that evening the ringing of the bell was interrupted by the sweet, sad voice of a piano teacher with predilections for Bach concerts and street musicians.

“Hello? My name is Alexandre Grothendieck. Can I speak with Mr. Lisker?”

“I’m afraid not. He started out this morning to see you. He’s probably staying over in Avignon tonight.”

“Oh dear; did he really say he was coming to see me?”

“Yes. He was given your address from some teachers at the Université Paul Valéry. Until you called I thought that he’d just invented you as a strategy for getting away from me. I’m surprised to learn that you really exist.”

Posted at August 6, 2008 2:39 PM UTC

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12 Comments & 1 Trackback

Re: Visiting Grothendieck

The fact that Roy Lisker talks about a
Renault deux chevaux supposedly driven by Grothendieck does not inspire much confidence in the accuracy of the story.

For non Europeans: it is Renault Quatre and Citroen Deux Chevaux. What Lisker does is like talking about a Chevrolet Mustang.

Posted by: Maarten Bergvelt on August 6, 2008 5:10 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Visiting Grothendieck

Hello Maarten : I’m sure there are many other exceedingly petty details in my account that I’ve gotten wrong. What you’ve cited is hardly evidence that my entire account is suspect. By the way, I don’t drive a car,and I have very poor automobile recognition. When I go somewhere with a friend and we return to his car, I am usually unable to recognize it.
Oh yes, and there is another detail that you may have missed: Where is the town of “Lessmoiron”?

Posted by: Roy Lisker on August 7, 2008 3:13 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Visiting Grothendieck

One may not be able to conclude that the account is wrong, but neither can we conclude it’s correct, because there is no way to fact-check it. It’s an anecdote rather than journalism… and in a world of Steven Glass (the Fabulist) skepticism is understandable.

Posted by: Daniel Moskovich on August 13, 2008 10:59 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Visiting Grothendieck

Daniel: I’m really amazed at this level of trite skepticism. In fact, most substantive statements in my article can be checked from independent sources. Eric Terouanne still teaches at the Universite Paul Valery, though he’s moved from Mathematics to Portuguese. Christian Maillol went back to Chile with the transition to a democratic government. Yole Levine and Tiberio Wilson are real people, they do live in Mazan, and will confirm everything I say, down to getting sick at their place. The letters from Alexandre are authentic-I can show you the originals. The hotel owner in “Lessmoiron” can confirm the story of driving me out to visit Alexandre. The Gazette de Montpellier really does exist. And so on..
Where is this anecdote you’re refering to?

Posted by: Roy Lisker on August 13, 2008 8:47 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Visiting Grothendieck

I don’t know if it’s true or made-up (some of it looks plausible geographically), but one thing I noticed is that Grothendieck says at some point that he expects to live 21 more years. Now this is supposed to have been said in 1988 after his Craaford refusal, and 1988+21=2009. Of course he may live much longer. Anyway I heared IHES is in the process of editing Récoltes et Semailles for publication, so maybe they know things we don’t.

Posted by: frenchguy on August 6, 2008 9:45 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Visiting Grothendieck

someone really really really needs to write a grothendieck biography, while the remaining primary sources (serre, deligne, etc… and grothendieck himself of course) are still around!

Posted by: kevin on August 8, 2008 4:49 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Visiting Grothendieck

When I last spoke with him, Colin McLarty was planning to write a biography of Grothendieck after writing some studies of his work.

Posted by: John Baez on August 8, 2008 8:33 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Visiting Grothendieck

Winfried Scharlau has started writing a 3 volume biography. The first volume is finished and can be bought from him.

Winfried Scharlau: Wer ist Alexendar Grothendieck? Biographie - Teil 1: Anarchie

http://www.scharlau-online.de/ag_1.html

Posted by: Manuel on August 28, 2008 9:30 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Visiting Grothendieck

More Grothendieck in the September issue of the Notices of the AMS.

Posted by: ninguem on August 9, 2008 2:03 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Visiting Grothendieck

FWIW, I have seen Grothendieck close up in 1971 at an antinuclear protest march, he was in boxer shorts, carrying an attache case with a large scripting across SOBREVIRIR (? sobriety, virility?) and was quite agitated and hectic.
As sure as he is a genius he is nuts too.
It looks like the best of the best in any field, mathematics (Grothendieck, John Nash, Grigori Perelman), painting (Van Gogh) and even cooking (Eugenie Brazier) are compulsive nerds bordering on insanity who cannot help but rush thru their obsessions with, of course, outstanding results.
How many compulsive nerds at the n-Category Café? :-)

Posted by: Jean-Luc Delatre on August 10, 2008 8:04 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Visiting Grothendieck

I don’t agree at all. The fact that one can find a few geniuses who are nuts doesn’t mean that all geniuses are nuts, or even that most, or many, or more than a handful of geniuses are nuts. Was André Weil nuts? No. Was Élie Cartan nuts? No. David Hilbert? No. Riemann? No. Weierstrass? No? Hamilton? No. Euler? No.

And the same is true in other fields. Rembrandt wasn’t nuts. Neither was Rubens. Neither was Botticelli. Neither was Turner. Neither was Manet. Bach wasn’t nuts. Mozart wasn’t nuts. Chopin wasn’t nuts. Verdi wasn’t nuts.

Of course, if you inspect the life of any genius closely enough, you can discover some subject on which they had crazy ideas, some frivolous matter of taste on which they had passionate opinions, some moments in their life when they committed impulsive, irrational acts, some types of social relationship that they were unable to manage well, and some remarkably strange quirks and follies in their private life. But that is true not just of geniuses but of absolutely everybody.

People like to tell anecdotes about other people’s eccentricities, and people who are in the public eye, like geniuses, get more, and more widely known, anecdotes told about them than people who are relatively obscure. The ones who are most eccentric stick in the mind more, but that is surely because they are memorable in themselves, not because they are the norm.

Posted by: Tim Silverman on August 10, 2008 1:47 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Visiting Grothendieck

“Sobrevivir” means “survive” in Spanish. At the time, Grothendieck was involved in a movement called “Survivre et vivre”. So the translation is a lot less dramatic than either of your guesses.

Posted by: ninguem on August 10, 2008 10:54 PM | Permalink | Reply to this
Read the post Grothendieck Said: "Stop"
Weblog: The n-Category Café
Excerpt: People were trying to republish Grothendieck's magnum opus. But then...
Tracked: February 10, 2010 6:43 AM

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