I never met Alexander Grothendieck. I was never in the same room with him. I never even saw him from a distance. But whenever I think about math — which is to say, pretty much every day — I feel him hovering over my shoulder. I’ve strived to read the mind of Grothendieck as others strive to read the mind of God.
Those who did know him tend to describe him as a man of indescribable charisma, with a Christ-like ability to inspire followers. I’ve heard it said that when Grothendieck walked into a room, you might have had no idea who he was or what he did, but you definitely knew you wanted to devote your life to him.
And people did. 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. (Here and elsewhere I am reporting history as I’ve heard it from the participants and others who followed developments closely as they were happening. If I’ve got some details wrong, I’m happy to be corrected.) The resulting volumes filled almost 10,000 pages and rocked the mathematical world. (You can see some of those pages here).
I want to try to give something of the flavor of the revolution that unfolded in that room, and I want to do it for an audience with little mathematical background. This might require stretching some analogies almost to the breaking point. I’ll try to be as honest as I can. In the first part, I’ll talk about Grothendieck’s radical approach to mathematics generally; after that, I’ll talk (in a necessarily vague way) about some of his most radical and important ideas.