A Momentous Week

The most exciting news of the past week had nothing to do with James Comey or Donald Trump.

The University of Montpelier has released high-quality scans of about 18,000 pages of notes and scribbles by Alexandre Grothendieck. If you’re competent in both French and the art of deciphering handwriting that was never meant to be readable except to the author, you can while away some hours sifting through them here.

It would be an understatement to say that Grothendieck was never shy about revealing and publicly analyzing his thought processes, but these notes are presumably less filtered than the tens of thousands of pages he chose to share in his lifetime. FOr the many who are already sifting through them, and for the many more who are waiting to hear the reports of the sifters, they will yield new insights into one of the most extraordinary minds in human history.

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8 Responses to “A Momentous Week”


  1. 1 1 Bob Murphy

    Steve,

    I had forgotten how awesome your previous post on Grothendieck was; again, that was magnificent.

    If you have the time, can you explain to us a little more about how his seminar worked? Here’s what you wrote:

    “In 1958, when Grothendieck (aged 30) announced a massive program to rewrite the foundations of geometry, he assembled a coterie of brilliant followers and conducted a seminar that met 10 hours a day, 5 days a week, for over a decade. Grothendieck talked; others took notes, went home, filled in details, expanded on his ideas, wrote final drafts, and returned the next day for more. Jean Dieudonne, a mathematician of quite considerable prominence in his own right, subjugated himself entirely to the project and was at his desk every morning at 5AM so that he could do three hours of editing before Grothendieck arrived and started talking again at 8:00.”

    I mean, even if I had a group of grad students who hung on my every word, I think we would get more research done if we just met (say) every other day at most, in order to re-group and have me tell them what I had worked on the previous 48 hours.

    So what I’m getting at is this: Was Grothendieck “thinking at the board” during those 10 hours every day, or was he recapitulating what he had already figured out?

    And am I right in thinking that his method was to be the “coach” and his disciples were the ones to go write up the results and publish them in journals?

  2. 2 2 Bob Murphy

    BTW according to Wikipedia, this is my kind of guy:

    “Grothendieck’s political views were radical and pacifist, and he strongly opposed both United States intervention in Vietnam and Soviet military expansionism. He gave lectures on category theory in the forests surrounding Hanoi while the city was being bombed, to protest against the Vietnam War.[31] He retired from scientific life around 1970, after having discovered that the IHÉS was partly funded by the military.”

  3. 3 3 Roger

    Wasn’t there a previous effort to edit his papers while he was alive, and wasn’t it stopped at his request? Doesn’t he have a lot of political notes and scribbles also?

  4. 4 4 Steve Landsburg

    Bob Murphy (#1): I wasn’t there (though I’d give a lot to have been) so all I have is hearsay, but my sense is that Grothendieck spent those ten years “thinking at the board”, though with an extraordinarily clear vision of where all this was going.

  5. 5 5 Steve Landsburg

    Roger (#3): I’ve heard — though I don’t know how reliably — that Grothendieck deposited these papers at Montpelier with instructions not to open them until his death (and hence with implied permission to open them after his death). I’ve also heard that the 18,000 pages of math are dwarfed by a much greater number of political and personal writings, though again, I’m not sure what is and is not reliable.

  6. 6 6 Richard D.

    I fear that Grothendieck’s musings are far above the pay grade of
    the denizens here.

    I’ll take this opportunity to segue into… mathematics.
    Specifically, Jordan Ellenberg’s “How Not to be Wrong”, a set of
    thought provoking essays on the topic. My only criticism is the
    insipid title, it ought to be “The Armchair Mathematician”

    Normally, I do not recommend books, especially a math book! However,
    given the quality of this board, it seems appropriate, the right
    level, intellectually.

  7. 7 7 Richard D.

    SL: “… my sense is that Grothendieck spent those ten years
    “thinking at the board””

    This reminds me of reports of Duke Ellington. When hit with a new
    idea, he’d summon his band, and use the players as his instrument,
    feeling his way to a complete song.

    Creative minds run along the same track, it seems -

  8. 8 8 iceman

    I find his ideas are easily refuted by pointing out he has a funny name

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