Grothendieck, at the theatre

A few days ago, the theatre production “Rêves et Motifs” (Dreams and Motives) was put on stage in Argenteuil by la Compagnie Les Rémouleurs.

The stage director Anne Bitran only discovered Grothendieck’s life by reading the front pages of French newspapers, the day after Grothendieck passed away, in November 2014.

« Rêves et Motifs » is a piece inspired by Récoltes et Semailles.

Anne Bitran: ” In Récoltes et semailles we meet a scientist who has his feet on the ground and shares our curiosity about the world around us, with a strong political engagement. This is what I wanted to share with this piece.”

Some of Grothendieck’s dessins d’enfant make their appearance. Is that one Monsieur Mathieu in the center? And part of the Hexenkuche top left? (no, see Vimeo below)

And, does this looks like the sculpture ‘Grothendieck as Shepherd’ by Nina Douglas?

More information about the production can be found at the Les Remouleurs website (in French).

RÊVES ET MOTIFS from Les Rémouleurs on Vimeo.

In case you are interested, make sure to be in Lunéville, November 29th or 30th.

a morning in the mountains

For mornings like this I happily drive a day to be here.

a wintry chataigneraie

It took us some time to clear the array of old chestnut trees.

But it paid off. A good harvest easily gives half a ton of chestnuts, including some rare, older varieties.

In the autumn, the coloured leaves make a spectacular view. Now it looks rather desolate.

But, the wind piles up the fallen leaves in every nook, cranny, corner or entrance possible.

My day in the mountains: ‘harvesting’ fallen leaves…

NaNoWriMo (1)

Some weeks ago I did register to be a participant of NaNoWriMo 2016. It’s a belated new-year’s resolution.

When PS (pseudonymous sister), always eager to fill a 10 second silence at family dinners, asked

(PS) And Lieven, what are your resolutions for 2016?

she didn’t really expect an answer (for decades my generic reply has been: “I’m not into that kinda nonsense”)

(Me) I want to write a bit …

stunned silence

(PS) … Oh … good … you mean for work, more papers perhaps?

(Me) Not really, I hope to write a book for a larger audience.

(PS) Really? … Ok … fine … (appropriate silence) … Now, POB (pseudonymous other brother), what are your plans for 2016?


If you don’t know what NaNoWriMo is all about: the idea is to write a “book” (more like a ‘shitty first draft’ of half a book) consisting of 50.000 words in November.

We’re 5 days into the challenge, and I haven’t written a single word…

Part of the problem is that I’m in the French mountains, and believe me, there always more urgent or fun things to do here than to find a place of my own and start writing.

A more fundamental problem is that I cannot choose between possible book-projects.

Here’s one I will definitely not pursue:

[section_title text=”The Grothendieck heist”]

“A group of hackers uses a weapon of Math destruction to convince Parisian police that a terrorist attack is imminent in the 6th arrondissement. By a cunning strategy they are then able to enter the police station and get to the white building behind it to obtain some of Grothendieck’s writings.

A few weeks later three lengthy articles hit the arXiv, claiming to contain a proof of the Riemann hypothesis, by partially dismantling topos theory.

Bi-annual conferences are organised around the globe aimed at understanding this weird new theory, etc. etc. (you get the general idea).

The papers are believed to have resulted from the Grothendieck heist. But then, similar raids are carried out in Princeton and in Cambridge UK and a sinister plan emerges… “

Funny as it may be to (ab)use a story to comment on the current state of affairs in mathematics, I’m not known to be the world’s most entertaining story teller, so I’d better leave the subject of math-thrillers to others.

Here’s another book-idea:

[section_title text=”The Bourbaki travel guide”]

The idea is to hunt down places in Paris and in the rest of France which were important to Bourbaki, from his birth in 1934 until his death in 1968.

This includes institutions (IHP, ENS, …), residences, cafes they frequented, venues of Bourbaki meetings, references in La Tribu notices, etc.

This should lead to some nice Parisian walks (in and around the fifth arrondissement) and a couple of car-journeys through la France profonde.

Of course, also some of the posts I wrote on possible solutions of the riddles contained in Bourbaki’s wedding announcement and the avis de deces will be included.

Here the advantage is that I have already a good part of the raw material. Of course it still has to be followed up by in-situ research, unless I want to turn it into a ‘virtual math traveler ’s guide’ so that anyone can check out the places on G-maps rather than having to go to France.

I’m still undecided about this project. Is there a potential readership for this? Is it worth the effort? Can’t it wait until I retire and will spend even more time in France?

Here’s yet another idea:

[section_title text=”Mr. Yoneda takes the Tokyo-subway”]

This is just a working title, others are “the shape of prime numbers”, or “schemes for hipsters”, or “toposes for fashionistas”, or …

This should be a work-out of the sga4hipsters meme. Is it really possible to explain schemes, stacks, Grothendieck topologies and toposes to a ‘general’ public?

At the moment I’m re-reading Eugenia Cheng’s “Cakes, custard and category theory”. As much as I admire her fluent writing style it is difficult for me to believe that someone who didn’t knew the basics of it before would get an adequate understanding of category theory after reading it.

It is often frustrating how few of mathematics there is in most popular maths books. Can’t one do better? Or is it just inherent in the format? Can one write a Cheng-style book replacing the recipes by more mathematics?

The main problem here is to find good ‘real-life’ analogies for standard mathematical concepts such as topological spaces, categories, sheaves etc.

The tentative working title is based on a trial text I wrote trying to explain Yoneda’s lemma by taking a subway-network as an example of a category. I’m thinking along similar lines to explain topological spaces via urban-wide wifi-networks, and so on.

But al this is just the beginning. I’ll consider this a success only if I can get as far as explaining the analogy between prime numbers and knots via etale fundamental groups…

If doable, I have no doubt it will be time well invested. My main problem here is finding an appropriate ‘voice’.

At first I wanted to go along with the hipster-gimmick and even learned some the appropriate lingo (you know, deck, fin, liquid etc.) but I don’t think it will work for me, and besides it would restrict the potential readers.

Then, I thought of writing it as a series of children’s stories. It might be fun to try to explain SGA4 to a (as yet virtual) grandchild. A bit like David Spivak’s short but funny text “Presheaf the cobbler”.

Once again, all suggestions or advice are welcome, either as a comment here or privately over email.

Perhaps, I’ll keep you informed while stumbling along NaNoWriMo.

At least I wrote 1000 words today…

Grothendieck’s gribouillis (2)

We left the story of Grothendieck’s Lasserre notes early 2015, uncertain whether they would ever be made public.

Some things have happened since.

Georges Maltsiniotis gave a talk at the Gothendieck conference in Montpellier in june 2015 having as title “Grothendieck’s manuscripts in Lasserre”, raising perhaps even more questions.

Philippe Douroux, a journalist at the French newspaper “Liberation”, had a few months ago his book out “Alexandre Grothendieck, sur les traces du dernier genie des mathematiques”. In the first and final couple of chapters he gives details on Grothendieck’s years in Lasserre.

In chapter 46 “Que reste-t-il du tresor de Grothendieck?” (what is left of Grothendieck’s treasure?) he recounts what has happened to the ‘Lasserre gribouillis’ and this allows us to piece together some of the jigsaw-puzzle.

[section_title text=”Maltsiniotis’ talk”]

These days you don’t have to be present at a conference to get the gist of a talk you’re interested in. That is, if at least one of the people present is as helpful as Damien Calaque was in this case. A couple of email exchanges later I was able to get this post out on Google+:

Below is the relevant part of the picture taken by Edouard Balzin, mentioned in the post.

Maltsiniotis blackboard Grothendieck conference

The first three texts are given with plenty of details and add up to say 5000 pages. The fifth text is only given the approximate timing 1993-1998, although they present the bulk of the material (30000 pages).

A few questions come to mind:

– Why didn’t Maltsiniotis give more detail on the largest part of the collection?
– There seem to be at least 15000 pages missing in this roundup (previously, the collection was estimates at about 50000 pages). Were they destroyed?
– What happened to the post-1998 writings? We know from a certain movie that Grothendieck kept on writing until the very end.

[section_title text=”Douroux’ book”]

If you have read Scharlau’s biographical texts on Grothendieck’s life, the middle part of Douroux’ book “Alexandre Grothendieck, sur les traces du dernier genie des mathematiques” will not be too surprising.

However, the first 5 and final 3 chapters contain a lot of unknown information (at least to me) about his life in Lasserre. The story of ‘his last friend Michel’ is particularly relevant.

Michel is a “relieur” (book-binder) and Grothendieck used his services to have carton boxes made, giving precise specifications as to their dimensions in mms, to contain his writings.

In the summer of 2000 there’s a clash between the two, details in chapter 4 “la brouille du relieur”. As a result, all writings from 2000-2014 are not as neatly kept as those before.

Each box is given a number, from 1 to the last one: 41.

In chapter 46 we are told that Georges Maltsiniotis spend two days in Lasserre consulting the content of the first 16 boxes, written between 1992 and 1994. He gives also additional information on the content:

Carton box 1 : “Geometrie elementaire schematique” contains 1100 pages of algebra and algebraic geometry which Maltsiniotis classifies as “assez classique” but which Douroux calls ‘this is solid mathematics on which one has to work hard to understand’ and a bit later (apparently quoting Michel Demasure) ‘we will need 50 years to transform these notes into accessible mathematics’.

Carton boxes 2-4 : “Structure de la psyche” (3700 pages) also being (according to Douroux) ‘a mathematical text in good form’.

Carton boxes 5-16 : Philosophical and mystical reflexions, among which “Psyche et structure” and “Probleme du mal” (7500 pages).

That is, we have an answer to most of the questions raised by Maltsiniotis talk. He only consulted the first 16 boxes, had a quick look at the other boxes and estimated they were ‘more of the same’ and packaged them all together in approximately 30000 pages of ‘Probleme du mal’. Probably he underestimated the number of pages in the 41 boxes containing all writings upto the summer of 2000.

Remains the problem to guess the amount of post 2000 writings. Here’s a picture taken by Leila Schneps days after Grothendieck’s death in Lasserre:

Grothendieck boxes in Lasserre

You will notice the expertly Michel-made carton boxes and a quick count of the middle green and rightmost red metallic box reveals that one could easily pack these 41 carton boxes in 3 metallic cases.

So, a moderate guess on the number of post 2000 pages is : 35000.

Why? Read on.

[section_title text=”what does this have to do with the Paris attacks?”]

Grothendieck boxes in Lasserre

November 13th 2015 is to the French what 9/11 is to Americans (and 22 March 2016 is to Belgians, I’m sad to add).

It is also precisely one year after Grothendieck passed away in Saint-Girons.

On that particular day, the family decided to hand the Grothendieck-collection over to the Bibliotheque Nationale. (G’s last wishes were that everything he ever wrote was to be transferred to the BNF, thereby revoking his infamous letter of 2010, within 7 months after his death, or else had to be destroyed. So, to the letter of his will everything he left should have been destroyed by now. But fortunately none of it is, because 7 months is underestimating the seriousness with which the French ‘notaires’ carry out their trade, I can testify from personal experience).

While the attacks on the Bataclan and elsewhere were going on, a Mercedes break with on board Alexandre Jr. and Jean-Bernard, a librarian specialised in ancient writings, was approaching Paris from Lasserre. On board: 5 metallic cases, 2 red ones, 1 green and 2 blues (so Leila’s picture missed 1 red).

At about 2 into the night they arrived at the ‘commissariat du Police’ of the 6th arrondissement, and delivered the cases. It is said that the cases weighted around 400 kg (that is 80kg/case). As in all things Grothendieck concerned, this seems a bit over-estimated.

Anyway, that’s the last place we know to hold Grothendieck’s Lasserre gribouillis.

There’s this worrying line in Douroux’ book : ‘Who will get hold of them? The BNF? An american university? A math-obsessed billionaire?’

Let’s just hope for the best. That the initial plan to open up the gribouillis to the mathematical community at large will become a reality.

If I counted correctly, there are at least two of these metallic cases full of un-read post 2000 writings. To be continued…