Grothendieck’s Later Years

Alexander Grothendieck’s 80th birthday was this past March, and the September Notices of the AMS has several articles about his later years. There’s a long piece entitled Who is Grothendieck?, by Winfried Scharlau, who is writing a three-volume biography. The first volume (in German) is available here and mainly deals with the stories of his parents. The article contains the only pictures I’ve ever seen of the post 1970s Grothendieck and a wealth of information about his activities after leaving the mathematical research world.

The same issue contains a short piece Memories of Shourik, by Valentin Poenaru reminiscing about his friendship with Grothendieck during the 1960s. The most shocking thing in it to me was actually the part about Barry Mazur’s wife, who Poenaru describes as being only 17 when he met her living with Mazur at Bures-sur-Yvette.

Note added: Mazur’s biography here mentions just one wife, Grace Dane, a Harvard biology postdoc he married in 1960. If she was, as Poenaru claims, 17 in 62-63, that would have made her a 15 year-old postdoc when they married….

Finally, there’s a piece by Allyn Jackson about Grothendieck and the IHES, which is having its 50th birthday this year. Evidently Grothendieck has recently been in communication with the IHES:

Six months to the day before the start of the IHES anniversary celebration, Grothendieck wrote to the institute with a request for books. The IHES sent him the books as quickly as it could. But the exchange of letters between Grothendieck and the IHES administration culminated in his writing a furious “open letter” recounting his view of the exchange, which he took as deeply insulting towards him. He requested that copies of the open letter be sent to all members of the IHES Scientific Council and explicitly states that this letter is public (though he also says he will make no efforts on his own to publicize it). Having seen the open letter, I can say that it conveys an extreme outrage that indicates how difficult it would be to conduct reasonable communication with him.

At the same time, the open letter reveals the vivid personal tie that Grothendieck clearly still feels to the IHES. The letter also reveals an isolated individual who is reaching out in the only way he is able. In one place he speaks of his open letter as being a letter of farewell (“adieu”) to a world with which he no longer has anything in common. He ends on a note of apocalyptic foreboding, saying “that the time is near when…this letter, this cry will be known by all. In a world of the living.” This cry does not seem to concern misunderstanding over his original request for books. Rather, it speaks of anguish in the heart of one of the great mathematicians of modern times.

The IHES is having Recoltes et Semailles, Grothendieck’s long meditation on mathematics and his withdrawal from it, published this summer. Articles about this are beginning to appear in the French press, see here and here.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Grothendieck’s Later Years

  1. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks egan, fixed.

  2. Michael Bacon says:

    “The most shocking thing in it to me was actually the part about Barry Mazur’s wife, who Poenaru describes as being only 17 when he met her living with Mazur at Bures-sur-Yvette.”

    Shocking? Really? They were married afterall, so you wouldn’t be shocked they were living together. 🙂

  3. Joseph says:

    Wow. Thanks for the info. Ever since I started studying algebraic geometry, I have been absolutely mesmerized by Grothendieck.

  4. Peter Woit says:


    See my added note. Something about the Mazur story doesn’t add up…

  5. Chris W. says:

    You might have mentioned that Barry Mazur was only 25 at the time. Better yet, you might have omitted mention of that sentence altogether.

  6. MathPhys says:


    I agree with Chris W. Maybe you can remove that sentence altogether. Someone made a small mistake somewhere about someone’s age.

  7. commonsense says:

    If I said Grothendieck looks 100 if he’s a day, does that imply he got his Fields Medals when he was in his 50’s. (Answer: no.)

  8. Peter Woit says:

    commonsense (and others)

    Poenaru wrote that Mazur’s wife was 17, not that she looked 17. This is rather odd, so I mentioned it. If you don’t find it worth mentioning, ignore it.

  9. Martin R. says:

    I also find it surprising that you quote this sentence about Mazur’s wife. Who cares ? It’s not your style. I am a French physicist who read you blog regularly with pleasure and interest. Without knowing you directly, I got the impression that you are a sensible and honest man. So please, leave this kind of remark to those in the US who think that sexual attraction is the source of all evil…

  10. DPG says:

    A. Grothendieck: Should we continue scientific research?

    on my blog dedicated to “Basic research in a global world”

  11. Peter Woit says:

    Martin R.,

    My comment had nothing to do with any moral judgment. Perhaps the problem here is a poor use of words. All I meant to say is that I found this to be surprising and hard to believe. As far as I can tell, that reaction was correct, since it appears that the story is not true.


    Unless someone actually knows the explanation for Poenaru’s odd claim in the article, enough about Mazur’s wife.

  12. Martin R. says:

    Ok, sorry for the misunderstanding.

  13. richard says:

    Where is it possible to read this open letter, referred to in the quoted text ?

  14. Peter Woit says:


    As far as I know it has not been made publicly available.

  15. Anyone is welcome to view my amateurish ,but earnest salute to A. Grothendieck here:

  16. richard says:

    it is not so much of an “open” letter then 😉

  17. Kea2 says:

    The “International Who’s Who of Authors…” entry for “Mazur, Grace Dane” reads in part: Born 22 April 1944; m. Barry C Mazur; BA Harvard College 1971; Ph.D. Harvard University 1981.

  18. Professor R says:

    Bures-sur-Yvette? I haven’t heard that name in a long while.
    I spnt a year as a child in Bures, while Dad took a year’s sabbatical with Louis Michel. It was a wonderful year for the whole family, and indeed for all the families of visiting professors.
    We all lived in a little Residence specially for the familes of visiting academics, and went to the local french school (excellent) and music college (excellent). Theoreticians have such a wonderful life, who else gets to do this…

    Bures seemed like a small, delightful village nowhere in particular- it was only years later that I realised it is host to a world-famous Institute , and right in the middle of several top-class universities and institutions

  19. Howard says:

    OK, so Kea2’s research indicates the answer to your puzzlement: Ms. Mazur was not a post-doc at the time she married Mazur. In putting together the Poenaru memoir and the biographical note about his wife, you committed the common logical error of “post-doc ergo propter doc”.

  20. D R Lunsford says:

    Reading this, I am sadly reminded of Cantor.


  21. kevin says:

    what does “shourik” mean?

  22. Anonymous says:

    In Russian, Shourik to Alexander is like Bob to Robert in English.

  23. Alexander -> Alexasha -> Sasha -> Sashoura -> Shoura -> Shourik

Comments are closed.