Grothendieck Project

Alexandre Grothendieck Biography Project

March 7th-17th,2001

Fufilling a promise made 6 years earlier, Ferment's editor boarded a TWA plane for Paris on the evening of March 7th,2001, to attend the first meeting of a committee that has been set up to make the life and works of the great mathematician, Alexandre Grothendieck( Alexandre will often be referred to as "AG") better known to the scientific world and the general public.

In 1994 I'd done some fund-raising for a project of a more limited scope: finding him.My last visit to him was in 1990. Around 1993 he disappeared from the little village in the Vaucluse where he's been hiding out to an unknown location. So jealous was he of his privacy that it appears that even his son, then studying mathematics at Harvard and recipient of a regular stipend from AG's bank, was not informed of his whereabouts.

This project was not without controversy, given that most of us agree that people who sincerely want to be left alone should have a right to be so. Sincerity is the key, and it appears with respect to this attribute AG does not have a good record.

Given AG's extreme mental state, which fluctuated on insanity, his importance to modern science ( like it or not, he is a very public figure) and his own ruthlessness in violating the privacy of almost all his colleagues through the publication of a memoir, Recoltes et Semailles filled with vicious personal attacks against them, it was felt that, both for his own good and to keep open a dialogue which he had sought to sabotage, one had the right to know if he was in good health, that he wasn't wandering about lost through the countryside of southern France, and if he was prepared to discuss, explain or defend the serious accusations he'd made against everyone.

During my first visit with him in the summer of 1988, I'd remarked that despite his much advertized rejection of human society, he is actually very lonely, and in fact does appreciate it whenever anyone sucessfully vaults all the hurdles, if only to say hello.

It turns out that finding him was the easiest part. He is now living somewhere in the Pyrenees. His self-imposed visitors' list is more restricted than the federal government's for Leonard Peltier in Leavenworth Penitentiary. Although direct communication with him is next to impossible, his neighbors in the village where he resides look after him. Thus, although he is known to come up with ideas like living on dandelion soup and nothing else , they see to it that he maintains a proper diet. These neighbors also maintain contact with AG well-wishers in Paris and Montpellier, so one doesn't need to worry about him

Living interfered with life, as it always does. Even as Alexandre has buried himself in the Pyrenees, so I buried myself in Middletown, Connecticut: As Voltaire said at the conclusion of Candide "Tend Your Gardens" , and I have been doing just that. Yet I was very conscious of having disappointed the contributors to the 1994 search for Grothendieck.

In 2000 A.S. (After Socrates) I received an E-mail message from Harvey Shoolman, an editor based in London. Among other things, Harvey is the managing director of the British Academy Isaac Newton project. In this E-letter he described the Newton project as : ".. a vast scholarly undertaking to produce a printed and electronic edition of the (eventually)complete Newton opus. We are beginning with the vast unpublished manuscript archives in theology and you know Isaac Newton spent most of his time on this material rather than the mathematics and dynamics. A team of over 40 international scholars are transcribing the mss and providing detailed scholarly annotation. Eventually we intend to put this free on the web....."

It was through the Newton Project that Harvey became interested in 20th century mathematics. By typing the name "Grothendieck" into Internet search engines, he soon uncovered the advertising for series of articles entitled the "Quest for Grothendieck" which I'd published in the Ferment newsletter in the early 90's.

We corresponded, then arranged a meeting over lunch in a North Indian restaurant on the Lower East Side of New York. Harvey, connoisseur of London's world renowned Indian restaurants, assured me that the food was not very good. He may have been correct: we both agreed that the service was terrible. Still, we spoke for over an hour on the subject of Grothendieck.

Harvey was interested in producing a comprehensive biography of Grothendieck. This is a formidable task. The lives of each of his parents are already more engrossing than most fiction. Researching them alone would involve consulting records dating back over a century, in libraries and government archives in at least 5 countries: Russia, Germany, Belgium, Spain and France. Then he wanted to set up a conference based on his life and work; oversee and publish translations of AG's mathematical opus, political writings and memoirs "Recoltes et Semailles " and " La Cle des Songes ". Finally we spoke about setting up a Grothendieck Biography website.

Harvey Shoolman's coordinates and E-mail address are easily found through any Internet search engine. Type in either his name or "Newton Project"

A committee was put together at the beginning of 2001. Since most of the persons involved are French or were resident there at that time a ( very!) informal consensus emerged that we would all meet in Paris on a certain date, which did not come into focus as the weekend of March 10th and 11th until a few days before I flew over there.

Touchdown at the Charles de Gaulle airport, 7:30 AM on Thursday, March 8th. Although more familiar with Paris than even my native town of Philadelphia, ( The irresistible appeal of Paris lies in the fact that, block by block, it is the most 'user friendly' city on the globe.) my fatigue from the trip so thoroughly confused me that and I found myself wandering about outside the Gare du Nord in the pouring rain for half an hour.A leisurely ( and expensive!) cafe creme straightened me out.

By 11 AM I was walking through the door of the Ideal Hotel on the rue de Trois Bornes in the 11th Arrondisement. The room had been reserved and paid for by Leila Schneps, algebraic geometer at the University of Paris and passionate Grothendieck enthusiast. It had been her timely grant that eliminated the final obstacle to my attendance at the meeting.

The next morning I set out to find Leila and her co-worker Pierre Lochak. Their offices were listed as being located at the Jussieu science faculty , a bewildering collection of many medieval towers spread out like rooks on a lunar landscape. After numerous inquiries I discovered that the tower in which all the mathematical thinking at U -Paris had been concentrated, was completely gutted. All that remains are locked doors, corridors filled with rubbish and empty classrooms. The new headquarters are at 175 rue du Chevaleret ( Metro Chevaleret) , a labyrinth of buildings loosely connected by paradoxical corridors, about two miles away.

After many false starts and visits with several informative secretaries in different departments, Leila and Pierre were uncovered pacing back and forth in the throes of intense mathematization in the Algebraic Geometry unit on the 7th floor of Batiment A .

We sat around in Leila's office talking about needed to be accomplished at the upcoming meeting. The following persons were anticipated: