Grothendieck News

On Thursday someone pointed out to me that it was Alexander Grothendieck’s 85th birthday. Hopefully he is well and celebrating appropriately. Coincidentally I just heard the following rumor. Supposedly a couple months ago the librarian at the IHES got a phone call from a man who said his name is Alexander Grothendieck, that he needed a specific book from the library and asked if he/she could mail it to him at a certain address somewhere in the south of France.

The librarian said that books are lent only to IHES members and no books are sent by mail. The man on the phone said something and the librarian said that he/she must consult with the director. The director then went ahead and had the book sent.

Perhaps someone can confirm this rumor. Of course the first question that comes to mind is: “What book was it???” (And yes, if I do find out, I suppose I shouldn’t blog the answer, to respect Grothendieck’s privacy…)

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17 Responses to Grothendieck News

  1. gizmo says:

    It is very unfortunate for mathematical community that Grothendieck stopped his mathematical research at the age of 42. I don’t understand his decision, because, as far as I know, he was not very active in something political. He could continue his research. In wikipedia it says that
    “In this “Déclaration d’intention de non-publication”, he states that essentially all materials that have been published in his absence have been done without his permission. He asks that none of his work should be reproduced in whole or in part, and even further that libraries containing such copies of his work remove them.”
    Very weird for such a great mathematician.

    As for the book, I believe you shouldn’t ask if you think it is improper to share it. (By the way I am very curious too.)

  2. johnmcAllison says:

    “He [ Grothendiec ] asks that none of his work should be reproduced in whole or in part, and even further that libraries containing such copies of his work remove them.”

    I just hope that it wasn’t Grothendiec asking for a book authored by some one else, since it would smear himself as a parasitic hypocrite. He comes across as a man of principle and I doubt he would do this.

  3. Deane says:

    I heard this exact story only a few weeks ago from a mathematician I know, and he seemed to have heard it from a reliable source. The version I heard is that Grothendieck called one of the permanent professors and asked for a particular book from the library. I don’t remember what I was told about what ensued after that or which book it was. But what you say sounds pretty plausible.

  4. MathPhys says:


    Grothendieck was mathematically active way past 1970. His “Esquisse d’un Programme” , which by all accounts is first-rate mathematics, was written in 1984, based on a 1,600 manuscript from 1980/81. He has at least one other 600 page manuscript on stacks from 1983. Put together, these works add up to more than what a typical good mathematician at a typical good university produces in a lifetime.


    I don’t think that he’s well enough to be consistent.

  5. Felipe Zaldivar says:


    Sorry to disagree, but I don’t like your choice of adjectives to refer to Alexander Grothendieck. All the stories one hears about his work and work ethics contradicts your unfortunate words. The monumental work he left us is something we should, and are, grateful for. We may lament his early parting from our milieu, but we respect his reasons, whatever they may be. After all he did not harm anyone in doing so, and all the libraries have copies of his published works that we consult freely. Most of his published work is freely available, e.g. all the EGA volumes, from NUNDAM . Anyone familiar with his work knows how freely he shared his ideas, and let others add their own, as in his celebrated SGA at IHES, that are now being republished by the SMF (my local library has now new copies of two of the volumes on group schemes; I hope to see soon, the volumes from SGA4). Again, I am sorry to disagree with you, but allow me to end with a thought I recurrently have about this larger than human characters: we don’t exactly know or understand what Grothendieck or Perelman are telling us, not about them, but about ourselves, minor players in the word of mathematics, but we must respect them for what they have done.
    Best wishes,

  6. Tim Campion says:

    @ gizmo

    If you’re under the impression that Grothendieck was not very political, then you might want to read up a bit. His parents were anarchists. His father supposedly died in Auschwitz, and Grothendieck spent several childhood years in French refugee camps during WWII.

    Grothendieck himself was a dedicated pacifist. He taught seminars in North Vietnam to protest the war there. He left the IHES and refused the Crafoord prize partly because they received military funding.

    This is just from wikipedia.

  7. gizmo says:

    @ Tim Campion

    To my knowlodge his political activities were not too dense to make him stop mathematical research. I don’t say he don’t have sharp political opinions, but if he wanted to change something, he should appear in public and defend his opinions, instead of living in reclusion. I don’t know Grothendieck personally, so I don’t want to say more. On his views on funding of mathematics, V.I. Arnold has similar views:
    Off topic: Maybe I am wrong, but I observed that while top theoretical physicists almost always on the faculties at most prestigious universities, there are many mathematicians of first rate, some earned fields medal, on faculties at less prestigious universities. Can someone explain why ? Maybe it is because mathematicians works more indepently than physicists (who works more or less on same topics, while mathematicians have much more freedom). If it is so, can we say that different universities have tend to different topics (in physics)? Princeton seems to have a clear bias to string theory but what about others ? Isn’t this harmful to phd education ?

  8. gizmo,

    I think that’s just selection bias on your part, and perhaps a misunderstanding of what “prestigious” means. A math department is prestigious because of who is there and what sort of community they are trying to build. When I think of top-tier math departments, that list correlates extremely highly with standard lists of world-renowned universities. In no particular order, I think of places like Princeton, Berkeley, Stanford, Columbia, NYU, etc.

    Also, I don’t think Grothendieck (or Perelman or anyone else) owes us anything. Many people have talents they choose not to pursue for all sorts of personal reasons. Maybe they have a family whom they refuse to neglect for the sake of a better position. Maybe they decide on more lucrative job options. Maybe they have physical or psychological conditions that make the experience unpleasant. Maybe they just prefer gardening!
    I don’t believe I would make the same decision that Grothendieck did, but I will also never be in that position. I was not a victim of any particularly horrible historic events as a child, and while I strive to be a fair second-rate mathematician, I will never be known as an earth-shattering influence like he is. At the same time, it’s always tempting to say “screw this!” and go live in a cabin in the mountains somewhere, and I can only envy those who had the courage to pursue their desires.

  9. OMF says:

    Maybe it was a book on LaTeX?

  10. socrates says:

    Sources tell me it was “Not Even Wrong” by a certain Peter Woit

  11. MathPhys says:


    It is my impression as well that the distribution of prominent physicists peaks at a (much) smaller number of universities compared to that of prominent mathematicians. I think the reason is that it is easier for a mathematician to work in relative isolation (think of Langlands) and produce influential mathematics than for a physicist. Physicsists seem to need to talk to others, or at least to have the chance to do so when they want to, on a non-stop basis.

  12. Jon says:

    April fools?

  13. Thomas says:

    A book by Pierre Lochak which seems to be e.g. about putting Grothendieck’s way of thinking into a braod context:

  14. a says:

    By the way, are you aware of audio recordings of 1973 Grothendieck’s lectures at SUNY at Buffalo? It appears the copyright of all these recordings is that of the Department of Mathematics of SUNY at Buffalo and one can actually listen to them.

  15. Peter Woit says:


    Thanks (that site is down now, was up earlier). Do you know if any kind of transcription of those lectures exists (i.e. is there any kind of written version of the material of those lectures)?

  16. Felipe Zaldivar says:

    There are some notes, of the first part of the course, written using these recordings by F. Gaeta. Scans of the notes are in the “Mathematical Texts” section of the Grothendieck’s site (www. under the title “Introduction to Functorial Algebraic Geometry” and, as emphasized there these are the notes with commentaries by F. Gaeta, apparently there were no pre-notes by Grothendieck himself that were later expanded by the note-taker. It would be nice to compare the recordings with the notes.

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