About the title

About the title

I changed the title of the blog on March 20, 2013 (it used to have the title “Notes of an owl”). This was my immediate reaction to the news the T. Gowers was presenting to the public the works of P. Deligne on the occasion of the award of the Abel prize to Deligne in 2013 (by his own admission, T. Gowers is not qualified to do this).

The issue at hand is not just the lack of qualification; the real issue is that the award to P. Deligne is, unfortunately, the best compensation to the mathematical community for the 2012 award of Abel prize to Szemerédi. I predicted Deligne before the announcement on these grounds alone. I would prefer if the prize to P. Deligne would be awarded out of pure appreciation of his work.

I believe that mathematicians urgently need to stop the growth of Gowers's influence, and, first of all, his initiatives in mathematical publishing. I wrote extensively about the first one; now there is another: to take over the arXiv overlay electronic journals. The same arguments apply.

Now it looks like this title is very good, contrary to my initial opinion. And there is no way back.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Where one can find an autobiography of Alexander Grothendieck? Part 2

Previous post: Where one can find an autobiography of Alexander Grothendieck? Part 1.

A few years ago Grothendieck himself complicated the matter a lot. Note that this happened decades after his texts were rejected by all publishers.

Grothendieck contacted one or two of his former students and demanded that his works published without his authorization were removed from circulation, including libraries. At the time an extensive work, devoted to typesetting in TeX and simultaneously correcting misprints and minor mistakes, and clarifying his works when possible, was underway. Most of the Grothendieck's works were not written by him, and were published either as joint papers with J. Dieudonne (who wrote them all, but is listed as the second author contrary to the mathematical habit to list authors in the alphabetical order), or as notes of the "Séminaire de Géométrie Algébrique du Bois Marie" by Grothendieck and many of his pupils. As all such seminar notes, they are far from being perfect, and they not only deserve to be carefully rewritten, they need to be rewritten. After Grothendieck’s request, this work was almost completely halted, and the rewritten, but not yet published parts were taken down from the web. The already published part of the work was clearly subjected to Grothendieck request, but nothing was done about this. It seems that at least some of the still available paper publications were soon sold out, but some other are still available. (My presentation of this story posted few hours ago wasn't quite correct; the above is the corrected version.)

Note that Grothendieck had both moral and legal rights to demand this at least with respect with the notes of the "Séminaire de Géométrie Algébrique du Bois Marie", his most important mathematical texts. His moral rights as an author are obvious. In addition, he was the copyright holder. Originally, almost all these texts were published by Springer, and the copyright, as usual, belonged to Springer. But at the end of the 1980-ies Springer returned the copyright to Grothendieck. So, legally, nobody can do anything with these texts without Grothendieck’s permission.

The people involved esteemed Grothendieck too much to openly go against his will. Presumably, some people continued to rewriting, but without posting their text on the web (and, of course, without publishing them in the conventional sense).

The situation with his autobiography is much simpler. While it is possible to argue that his discoveries do not belong to him - they belong to humanity, this is not the case with his autobiographical texts. They are like personal letters. They were never published. So, both the moral and the legal rights belonged to Grothendieck. Given the fact that people were very reluctant to do anything against his desire with his mathematical texts, they are even more careful with his personal texts.

Now, after Grothendieck passed away, both the moral and legal rights belongs to his surviving relatives. While the New York Times wrote that he has no known survivors, this seems to be incorrect, and his surviving relatives have no objection against circulation of at least his mathematical texts. Probably, the project of rewriting of the notes of the "Séminaire de Géométrie Algébrique du Bois Marie" will resume. Of course, the original notes are available in many copies.

It is less clear what will happen with his autobiography. Of course, there were many copies in circulation, and I doubt that everyone in possesion of such a copy, be it paper or electronic, destroyed it. If you are lucky, you may come across such a person or even find something on the web. I would very much appreciate any references.

In 1990-ies a Russian translation of the first two parts of Grothendieck's autobiography was published in a completely regular manner. If you read Russian, you should be able to easily find copies on the web. The Russian title is "Урожаи и посевы".

Note that most of mathematical text by Grothendieck and all non-mathematical are in French. While this seems to be a hardly serious obstruction in the case of mathematical papers, his autobiography is written in a rather poetic and sophisticated French. At least one person started to translate it in English, but this is a time consuming task, and he needs to earn a living. He needs funds. Probably, he needs also assurance that his work will be published in some way: will be made easily accessible.

At the same time, even a biography of Grothendieck, partially written by a well known and respected German mathematician W. Scharlau, turned out to be unpublishable in a regular way. The already completed parts are more or less self-published, and there is a need to fund an English translation. See Translation of Grothendieck Biography. The translation of the first part is available at Amazon as a book on demand: Winfried Scharlau, Who Is Alexander Grothendieck? Part 1: Anarchy. The German original of the 3rd part is also available on Amazon as a book on demand: Winfried Scharlau, Wer Ist Alexander Grothendieck? Anarchie, Mathematik, Spiritualit T, Einsamkeit Eine Biographie Teil 3 (German Edition).

Next post: Mathematicians are human and want to be famous.

Where one can find an autobiography of Alexander Grothendieck? Part 1

Previous post: Alexandre Grothendieck passed away yesterday, November 13, 2014.

michal2602 asked this question in a comment to the previous post. The short reply would be "I have no idea". This post and the next one are devoted to a long reply.

I don't know, and by good reasons.

First of all, autobiographical and philosophical texts of Grothendieck were never published. They were offered (I am not sure that by Grothendieck himself) to some publishers in France, and everyone rejected the offer. I was told that in his autobiographical texts Grothendieck applied to his colleagues and his own students’ very high moral standards, and points out the violation of these standards. Moreover, sometimes he points out violation of the common standards of scientific ethics or even of the common decency standards. The problem is that he names the violators. And this is something that is quite risky (for the potential publisher) in France (or so I was told).

At the same time the mathematical community does not like such things at all (this is my observation). The mathematical community prefers not to investigate even the cases of nearly oblivious stealing of theorems or ideas (even when an investigation will clear the accused). If your theorem is stolen, you are better off if you do not tell about this in public (unless your proof was literally copy-pasted from your paper to a paper of somebody else).

Apparently, Americans are much more tolerant to the public discussion of any aspect of the life of all sorts of celebrities (the legal term is the “public person”). As is well known, the right to discuss this is codified in the First Amendment to the US Constitution and its Supreme Court interpretations. And why somebody in the US would care about an accusation of a member French Academy? It would be quite natural to translate the Grothendieck’s autobiography in English and to publish it. The American Mathematical Society is the most natural publisher for such a translation. This never happened. The American Mathematical Society considers Grothendieck’s autobiography to be just not interesting enough.

For me, all this is rather depressing. I used to think that the scientific community (including the mathematical one) is open and welcoming controversies. In my opinion, everything written by a mathematician of high enough caliber should be published (may be except wrong proof, but even some wrong proofs deserve to be published). Grothendieck’s caliber is much higher than necessary for this. If such a mathematician holds currently unacceptable opinion, let us argue about it. If she or he misunderstood something, or wasn’t well informed, let us point out at the mistake. But we should not silence people. We don’t have to publish all the rubbish people can produce, but if we deal with a genius, we cannot be certain that we can tell apart the rubbish from that we just don’t understand yet.

Next post: Where one can find an autobiography of Alexander Grothendieck? Part 2.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Alexandre Grothendieck passed away yesterday, November 13, 2014

Previous post: And who actually got Fields medals?

Alexandre Grothendieck, the greatest mathematician for the twenties century, passed away on November 13, 2014 at the Saint-Girons hospital (Ariège) near the village Lasserre.

Alexandre Grothendieck spent about the last 24 years of his life in this village in Pyrenees range of mountains in a self-imposed retirement avoiding all contacts with the outside world and the mathematical community.
He had good reasons for this, but till now the mathematical community does not want to listen, or, rather, to read his extensive partially autobiographical, partially philosophical texts.

Alexandre Grothendieck, with help of his pupils, collaborators, and admires, completely transformed mathematics. His best known contribution is the proof of most of the Andre Weil conjectures (with the last step done by his pupil Pierre Deligne). Much more important is his transformation of the algebraic geometry from relatively obscure branch of mathematics to its central part. Even more important is his most intangible contribution, the concept known as th "rising sea", the idea that every mathematical problem should be immersed in a sufficiently abstract theory, which will made the solution trivial. This theory should be, in a sense, trivial too - it should not involve any tricks or convoluted arguments. This was a drastic departure from the mathematical analysis, the central branch of mathematics at the time, which was dominated by proofs demonstrating not so much the vision, but the "executive power" of the authors (the concept introduced by G. Hardy, who valued the executive power most). These ideas are still far from being internalized or even understood by the mathematical community.

Despite his tremendous influence, surpassing by a large margin the influence of any mathematician after David Hilbert, Alexandre Grothendieck was at least about 100 years ahead of his time.

His integrity and his concern about the perils people put each other into are hardly matched by any other contemporary scientist. He did not succeed much in this respect, apparently because his concerns only appeared to be left wing politics, but in fact were not of political nature.

With Alexandre Grothendieck passing away we lost the last living giant in mathematics.

Here is a link to a memorial article Alexandre Grothendieck, le plus grand mathématicien du XXe siècle, est mort in Le Monde, France (in French).

Next post: Where one can find an autobiography of Alexander Grothendieck? Part 1.