Next year I’ll be teaching a master course on the “History of Mathematics” for the first time, so I’m brainstorming a bit on how to approach such a course and I would really appreciate your input.

Rather than giving a chronological historic account of some period, I’d like this course to be practice oriented and focus on questions such as

what are relevant questions for historians of mathematics to ask?

how do they go about answering these questions?

having answers, how do they communicate their finds to the general public?

To make this as concrete as possible I think it is best to concentrate on a specific period which is interesting both from a mathematical as well as an historic perspective. Such as the 1930’s with the decline of the Noether boys (pictures below) and the emergence of the Bourbaki group, illustrating the shift in mathematical influence from Germany to France.

(btw. the picture above is taken from a talk by Peter Roquette on Emmy Noether, available here)

There is plenty of excellent material available online, for students to explore in search for answers to their pet project-questions :

The Bourbaki archive containing scanned images of all pre-war Bourbaki material (and more)

The Bourbaki bibliography compiled by Liliane Beaulieu. It lists nearly all articles and books written about the Bourbaki group, several available online.

There’s a wealth of riddles left to solve about this period, ranging from the genuine over the anecdotic to the speculative. For example

Many of the first generation Bourbakis spend some time studying in Germany in the late 20ties early 30ties. To what extend did these experiences influence the creation and working of the Bourbaki group?

What if fascism would not have broken up the Noether group, would this have led to a proof of the Riemann hypothesis by the Noether-Bourbakis (Witt, Teichmuller, Chevalley, Weil) in the early 40ties?

I hope students will come up with other interesting questions, do some excellent detective work and report on their results (for example in a blogpost or a YouTube clip).

In April my Google+ account will disappear. Here I collect some G+ posts, in chronological order, having a common theme. Today, math-history (jokes and puns included).

September 20th, 2011

Was looking up pictures of mathematicians from the past and couldn’t help thinking ‘Hey, I’ve seen this face before…’

Leopold Kronecker = DSK (2/7/2019 : DSK = Dominique Strauss-Kahn)

Adolf Hurwitz = Groucho Marx

June 2nd, 2012

The ‘Noether boys’

(Noether-Knaben in German) were the group of (then) young algebra students around Emmy Noether in the early 1930’s. Actually two of them were girls (Grete Hermann and Olga Taussky).

The picture is taken from a talk Peter Roquette gave in Heidelberg. Slides of this talk are now available from his website.

In 1931 Jacques Herbrand (one of the ‘Noether boys’) fell to his death while mountain-climbing in the Massif des Écrins (France). He was just 23, but already considered one of the greatest minds of his generation.

He introduced the notion of recursive functions while proving “On the consistency of arithmetic”. In several texts on Herbrand one finds this intriguing quote by Chevalley (one of the first generation Bourbakis):

“Jacques Herbrand would have hated Bourbaki” said French mathematician Claude Chevalley quoted in Michèle Chouchan “Nicolas Bourbaki Faits et légendes” Edition du choix, 1995. («Jacques Herbrand aurait détesté Bourbaki» in the original French version).

+Pieter Belmans (re)discovered a proto-drawing of Mumford’s iconic map of Spec(Z[x]) in his ‘red book’.

The proto-pic is taken from Mumford’s ‘Lectures on curves on an algebraic surface’ p.28 and tries to depict the integral projective line. The set-up is rather classical (focussing on points of different codimension) whereas the red-book picture is more daring and has been an inspiration for generations of arithmetical geometers.

Still there’s the issue of dating these maps.

Mumford himself dates the P^1 drawing 1964 (although the publication date is 66) and the red-book as 1967.

Though I’d love to hear more precise dates, I’m convinced they are about right. In the ‘Curves’-book’s preface Mumford apologises to ‘any reader who, hoping that he would find here in these 60 odd pages an easy and concise introduction to schemes, instead becomes hopelessly lost in a maze of unproven assertions and undeveloped suggestions.’ and he stresses by underlining ‘From lecture 12 on, we have proven everything that we need’.

So, clearly the RedBook was written later, and as he has written in-between his master-piece GIT i’d say Mumford’s own dating is about right.

Still, it is not a completely vacuous dispute as the ‘Curves’ book (supposedly from 1964 or earlier) contains a marvelous appendix by George Bergman on the Witt ring which would predate Cartier’s account…

Thanks to +James Borger i know of George’s take on this

“I was a graduate student taking the course Mumford gave on curves and surfaces; but algebraic geometry was not my main field, and soon into the course I was completely lost. Then Mumford started a self-contained topic that he was going to weave in — ring schemes — and it made clear and beautiful sense to me; and when he constructed the Witt vector ring scheme, I thought about it, saw a nicer way to do it, talked with him about it and with his permission presented it to the class, and eventually wrote it up as a chapter in his course notes.
I think that my main substantive contribution was the tying together of the various prime-specific ring schemes into one big ring scheme that works for all primes. The development in terms of power series may or may not have originated with me; I just don’t remember.”

which sounds very Bergmannian to me.

Anyway I’d love to know more about the dating of the ‘Curves’ book and (even more) the first year Mumford delivered his Red-Book-Lectures (my guess 1965-66). Thanks.
Pieter maintains an “Atlas of this picture” here

“Serre first considered the set of maximal ideals of a commutative ring A subject to certain restrictions. Martineau then remarked to him that his arguments remained valid for any commutative ring, provided one takes all prime ideals instead of only maximal ideals. I then proposed a definition of schemes equivalent to the definition of Grothendieck. In my dissertation I confined myself to a framework similar to that of Chevalley, so as to avoid an excessively long exposition of the preliminaries!”

In the 1956/57 Chevalley seminar Cartier gave the first two talks and in the first one, on november 5th 1956, one finds the first published use of the word ‘scheme’, which he refers to as ‘schemes in the sense of Chevalley-Nagata’. On page 9 of that talk he introduces the prime spectrum with its Zariski topology.

In the second talk a week later, on november 12th, he then gives the general definition of a scheme (as we know it, by gluing together affine schemes and including the stalks).

BUT, he did all of this ‘only’ for affine rings over a field, ‘to avoid an excessively long exposition of the preliminaries’…

Grothendieck then made the quantum-leap to general commutative rings.

June 18th, 2013

Correction : scheme-birthday = december 12th, 1955

Claude Chevalley gave already two talks on ‘Schemes’ in the Cartan-Chevalley seminar of 1955/56, the first one on december 12th 1955, the other a week later.

Chevalley only considers integral schemes, of finite type over a field (Cartier drops the integrality condition on november 5th 1956, a bit later Grothendieck will drop all restrictions).

Grothendieck’s quote “But then, what are schemes?” uttered in a Parisian Cafe must date from that period. Possibly Cartier explained the concept to him. In a letter to Serre, dated december 15th 1955, Grothendieck is quite impressed with Cartier:

“Cartier seems to be an amazing person, especially his speed of understanding, and the incredible amount of things he reads and grasps; I really have the impression that in a few years he will be where you are now. I am exploiting him most profitably.”

June 18th, 2013

David Mumford on the Italian school of Geometry

Short version:
Castelnuovo : the good
Severi : the bad
Enriques : the ugly

The longer version:

“The best known case is the Italian school of algebraic geometry, which produced extremely good and deep results for some 50 years, but then went to pieces.
There are 3 key names here — Castelnuovo, Enriques and Severi.

C was earliest and was totally rigorous, a splendid mathematician.

E came next and, as far as I know, never published anything that was false, though he openly acknowledged that some of his proofs didn’t cover every possible case (there were often special highly singular cases which later turned out to be central to understanding a situation). He used to talk about posing “critical doubts”. He had his own standards and was happy to reexamine a “proof” and make it more nearly complete.

Unfortunately Severi, the last in the line, a fascist with a dictatorial temperament, really killed the whole school because, although he started off with brilliant and correct discoveries, later published books full of garbage (this was in the 30’s and 40’s). The rest of the world was uncertain what had been proven and what not. He gave a keynote speech at the first Int Congress after the war in 1950, but his mistakes were becoming clearer and clearer.

It took the efforts of 2 great men, Zariski and Weil, to clean up the mess in the 40’s and 50’s although dredging this morass for its correct results continues occasionally to this day.” (David Mumford)

June 19th, 2014

Hirune Mendebaldeko – Bourbaki’s muse

After more than 70 years, credit is finally given to a fine, inspiring and courageous Basque algebraic geometer.

One of the better held secrets, known only to the first generation Bourbakistas, was released to the general public in april 2012 at the WAGS Spring 2012, the Western Algebraic Geometry Symposium, held at the University of Washington.

Hirune Mendebaldeko was a Basque pacifist, a contemporary of Nicholas Bourbaki, whom she met in Paris while there studying algebraic geometry. They were rumored to be carrying on a secret affair, with not infrequent trysts in the Pyrenees. Whenever they appeared together in public, however, there was no indication of any personal relationship.

From the comments, by +Sandor Kovacs:

+Chris Brav Chris, just between us: the whole thing is a joke. I just tried to put yet another twist on it. Also, until now we have never admitted that it is, so please don’t tell anyone. 😉

The explanation at the end of +lieven lebruyn’s blog post was indeed the original motivation for the name. We were starting a new “named” lecture series as part of WAGS and wanted to name it after someone not obvious. Basque is a language not related to any other. It seemed a good idea to use that, so very few people would know the meaning of any particular word.

Then we tried all the words in WAGS, but the other three were actually very similar to the English/etc versions. The first name was chosen by vibe. Then we decided that we needed a bio for our distinguished namesake and the connection to Bourbaki presented itself for various reasons that you can guess. But we wanted a pacifist and it seemed a nice contrast to Bourbaki. So Hirune was born and we were hoping that one day she would gain prominence in the world. Finally, it happened. 🙂

June 22nd, 2014

the state of European mathematics in 1927

This map, from the Rockefeller foundation, gives us the top 3 mathematical institutes in 1927 : Goettingen, Paris and … Rome.
The pie-charts per university show that algebra was a marginal topic then (wondering how a similar map might look today).

December 1st, 2015

Did Chevalley invent the Zariski topology?

In his inaugural lecture at #ToposIHES Pierre Cartier stated (around 44m11s):
“By the way, Zariski topology, as we know it today, was not what Zariski invented. He invented a variant of that, a topology on the set of all valuation rings of a given field, which is not exactly the same thing. As for the Zariski topology, the rumour is that it was invented by Chevalley in a seminar given by Zariski, but I have no real proof.”
Do you know more about this?

Btw. the full lecture of Cartier (mostly on sheaf theory) is not on the IHES YouTube channel, but on the channel of +Laurence Honnorat.

The IHES did begin to upload videos of the remaining plenary talks here (so far, the wednesday talks are available).

In this series I’m trying to figure out why the Bourbaki-group was an inspiration for the storyline of Trench, the fifth studio album by American musical duo Twenty One Pilots (or TØP).

Trench-lore centers around the city of Dema, ruled by nine Bishops enforcing Vialism (a fake religion asking people to take their own lives to glorify Dema).

It is an unfortunate coincidence that the city of Dema in the movie-clip of Nico and the Niners was inspired, and shot in Kyiv and Charkiv, Ukraine (the clip is from 2018).

Here’s the corresponding ‘beyond the movie’-clip, from which we learn (or rather are told) that the movie’s ‘city of Dema’ was shot in ‘the former Ukranian high-school’ of Josh Dun (he even calls it his ‘Alma Mater’), all in quotes because I don’t buy any of it, but take it as a desperate hint to identify Dema.

In the Trench movie-clips, Josh Dun is always cast as a Bandito, and last time we saw that also the Bourbaki-gang is likely to be close to the Banditos. Dema is supposed to be the Alma Mater of (at least some of) the Banditos. Hold that thought.

As for the connection between the City of Dema and the Bourbaki-group, we only have one piece of solid information:

That the Bourbaki-group named themselves after Nico=Nicolas Bourbaki clearly resonates with Twenty Øne Pilots who got their name from the 1947 play ‘All My Sons’ by American playwright Arthur Miller.

But the crucial info is: “The story of Dema happened before them”, so the story of Dema with the Bishops and Vialism happened before the Bourbaki-group. An extra piece of evidence that there is no way the Bourbaki-group are the nine Bishops of Dema.

So, what happened before the Bourbaki-group?

Mathematically, their direct predecessors were David Hilbert, Emil Artin, Emmy Noether and her boys, in short German mathematicians from the 1920’s and early 1930’s.

Several of the Bourbaki founding members studied in Germany (Weil in Gottingen in 1927, Chevalley in Hamburg in 1931 and Marburg in 1932, and Ehresmann in Gottingen in 1930).

So, a first candidate (also given the Bauhaus-like architecture of Dema) might be ‘German Mathematicians’, or in German, DEutscher MAthematiker = DEMA.

But one can hardly argue that there was a self-destructive attitude (like Vialism) present among that group, quite the opposite.

Still, one can ask why German mathematics was that strong in the 1920’s, compared to the French. France and Germany took different approaches with their intelligentsia during WW1: while Germany protected its young students and scientists, France instead committed them to the front, owing to the French culture of egalitarianism.

Remember that the album is called Trench, and the dirtiest trench-war in all of human history was WW1. Hold that thought.

But, how does this help us in identifying Dema.

A few months before the release of Trench, a website was launched containing letters (from a character named Clancy) and some photos (including part of a photo of Andre Weil). That website’s URL still is dmaorg.info.

On the rear of the boat in the movie-clip Saturday, we see ‘030904 DMA ORG’ (the 030904 is simplistic code for CID, believed to mean ‘Clancy Is Dead’).

Remember the inspirational, photoshopped photo of the Bourbaki 1938 congress in Dieulefit/Deauvallon:

All seven people in the original picture are ‘normaliens’, that is, their ‘Alma Mater’ is the Ecole Normale Superieure’. All but Simone Weil graduated from the DEpartement de MAthematiques=DEMA, as DMA was called then.

Whence the hypothesis: Bourbaki’s Dema = ENS before and during WW1

It is a conglomerate of buildings and its central courtyard forms a kind of secular cloister around its basin. This space is called “la Cour aux Ernests” in reference to a former director, Ernest Bersot. He had placed red (!) fish (=the Ernests in ENS-slang) in the basin, which have become one of the symbols of the school.

More important to us is that the pond of the Ernests is reached by crossing the “aquarium”, where the ENS war memorial is located, commemorating the 239 (former) ENS-students killed in WW1 on a tatal of about 1400 of them drafted…

From the Wikipedia-page on Nicolas Bourbaki:

“The deaths of ENS students resulted in a lost generation in the French mathematical community; the estimated proportion of ENS mathematics students (and French students generally) who died in the war ranges from one-quarter to one-half, depending on the intervals of time (c. 1900–1918, especially 1910–1916) and populations considered.”

“The École Normale Supérieure d’Ulm is always mentioned when historians summarize the ravages of World War I in France: the institution embodies the commitment of intellectuals at the front. The article offers an interpretation of mortality rates of the School which allows to understand why it is primarily students during schooling (Classes 1910-1913) that are heavily affected. Rather than basing the interpretation on the single assumption of sacrifice, it puts forward arguments pertaining to the history of the school in the immediate pre-war, including the institution of military training after the reform service in 1905, competition with the École Polytechnique to retain the best scientific students, and finally the forced commitment of the ENS students in the infantry.”

Crucial in this is the role of Ernest Lavisse who was the director of the ENS from 1903 till 1919.

Before, normaliens had to serve 12 months in the army, just like all other students. In 1905 the law changed, and under Lavisse’s influence ENS-students were given a heavy military training. From the paper:

“From now on, normalien students, like those of other major military schools, are subject to a two-year service: a first year before their actual entry into rue d’Ulm, which they had to perform in an infantry regiment; a second on leaving, which they can finish as a reserve second lieutenant, but always in the infantry, if they pass the tests. And there is more: because between these two years, the students also follow a fairly heavy military preparation, including theoretical and physical exercises, even on Sundays, organised by two officers seconded full-time for this mission within the walls of the School.”

He also instilled in the ENS-student a radical sense of patriotism, and was a fervent propagandist for l’Union sacrée. From the paper:

“Intellectual mobilisation crystallised in the figures of Lavisse and Durkheim via their famous Letters to all French people distributed in millions of copies across the country. In the fall of 1914, the two founded and took control, respectively as director and secretary of the Committee for Studies and Documents on the War, a propaganda organ for the country’s executives.

I would have liked that there were only nine members of the committee, but there were eleven of them…

Anyway, Lavisse and his eight professors created an extremely patriotic environment at the ENS during WW1, encouraging students to go to (the) Trench(es) and give their life for France and the glory of the Ecole. The ENS-monument is the equivalent of the Neon Gravestones in Dema-lore.

Did you spot it too? LAVIsse is almost a perfect anagram for VIALism.

Concluding, the best theory I can come up with in order to include the Bourbaki-group in Dema-lore is that their Dema is the ENS in WW1 and preceding years, and that Vialism is the regime installed by Lavisse and the other members from the committee.