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Category: stories

Stella Maris (Cormac McCarthy)

This week, I was hit hard by synchronicity.

Lately, I’ve been reading up a bit on psycho-analysis, tried to get through Grothendieck’s La clef des songes (the key to dreams) and I’m in the process of writing a series of blogposts on how to construct a topos of the unconscious.

And then I read Cormac McCarthy‘s novels The passenger and Stella Maris, and got hit.

Stella Maris is set in 1972, when the math-prodigy Alicia Western, suffering from hallucinations, admits herself to a psychiatric hospital, carrying a plastic bag containing forty thousand dollars. The book consists entirely of dialogues, the transcripts of seven sessions with her psychiatrist Dr. Cohen (nomen est omen).

Alicia is a doctoral candidate at the University Of Chicago who got a scholarship to visit the IHES to work with Grothendieck on toposes.

During the psychiatric sessions, they talk on a wide variety of topics, including the nature of mathematics, quantum mechanics, music theory, dreams, and the unconscious (and its role in doing mathematics).

The core question is not how you do math but how does the unconscious do it. How it is that it’s demonstrably better at it than you are? You work on a problem and then you put it away for a while. But it doesnt go away. It reappears at lunch. Or while you’re taking a shower. It says: Take a look at this. What do you think? Then you wonder why the shower is cold. Or the soup. Is this doing math? I’m afraid it is. How is it doing it? We dont know. How does the unconscious do math? (page 99)

Before going to the IHES she had to send Grothendieck a paper (‘It was an explication of topos theory that I thought he probably hadn’t considered.’ page 136, and ‘while it proved three problems in topos theory it then set about dismantling the mechanism of the proofs.’ page 151). At the IHES ‘I met three men that I could talk to: Grothendieck, Deligne, and Oscar Zariski.’ (page 136).

I don’t know whether Zariski visited the IHES in the early 70ties, and while most historical allusions (to Grothendieck’s life, his role in Bourbaki etc.) are correct, Alicia mentions the ‘Langlands project’ (page 66) which may very well have been the talk of town at the IHES in 1972, but the mention of Witten ‘Grothendieck writes everything down. Witten nothing.’ (page 100) raised an eyebrow.

The book also contains these two nice attempts to capture some of the essence of topos theory:

When you get to topos theory you are at the edge of another universe.
You have found a place to stand where you can look back at the world from nowhere. It’s not just some gestalt. It’s fundamental. (page 13)

You asked me about Grothendieck. The topos theory he came up with is a witches’ brew of topology and algebra and mathematical logic.
It doesnt even have a clear identity. The power of the theory is still speculative. But it’s there.
You have a sense that it is waiting quietly with answers to questions that nobody has asked yet. (page 68)

I did read ‘The passenger’ first, which is probably better as then you’d know already some of the ghosts haunting Alicia, but it’s not a must if you are only interested in their discussions about the nature of mathematics. Be warned that it is a pretty dark book, better not read when you’re already feeling low, and it should come with a link to a suicide prevention line.

Here’s a more considered take on Stella Maris:


The topology of dreams

Last May, the meeting Lacan et Grothendieck, l’impossible rencontre? took place in Paris (see this post). Video’s of that meeting are now available online.

Here’s the talk by Alain Connes and Patrick Gauthier-Lafaye on their book A l’ombre de Grothendieck et de Lacan : un topos sur l’inconscient ? (see this post ).

Let’s quickly recall their main ideas:

1. The unconscious is structured as a topos (Jacques Lacan argued it was structured as a language), because we need a framework allowing logic without the law of the excluded middle for Lacan’s formulas of sexuation to make some sense at all.

2. This topos may differs from person to person, so we do not all share the same rules of logic (as observed in real life).

3. Consciousness is related to the points of the topos (they are not precise on this, neither in the talk, nor the book).

4. All these individual toposes are ruled by a classifying topos, and they see Lacan’s work as the very first steps towards trying to describe the unconscious by a geometrical theory (though his formulas are not first order).

Surely these are intriguing ideas, if only we would know how to construct the topos of someone’s unconscious.

Let’s go looking for clues.

At the same meeting, there was a talk by Daniel Sibony: “Mathématiques et inconscient”

Sibony started out as mathematician, then turned to psychiatry in the early 70ties. He was acquainted with both Grothendieck and Lacan, and even brought them together once, over lunch, some day in 1973. He makes a one-line appearance in Grothendieck’s Récoltes et Semailles, when G discribes his friends in ‘Survivre et Vivre’:

“Daniel Sibony (who stayed away from this group, while pursuing its evolution out of the corner of a semi-disdainful, smirking eye)”

In his talk, Sibony said he had a similar idea, 50 years before Connes and Gauthier-Lafaye (3.04 into the clip):

“At the same time (early 70ties) I did a seminar in Vincennes, where I was a math professor, on the topology of dreams. At the time I didn’t have categories at my disposal, but I used fibered spaces instead. I showed how we could interpret dreams with a fibered space. This is consistent with the Freudian idea, except that Freud says we should take the list of words from the story of the dream and look for associations. For me, these associations were in the fibers, and these thoughts on fibers and sheaves have always followed me. And now, after 50 years I find this pretty book by Alain Connes and Patrick Gauthier-Lafaye on toposes, and see that my thoughts on dreams as sheaves and fibered spaces are but a special case of theirs.”

This looks interesting. After all, Freud called dream interpretation the ‘royal road’ to the unconscious. “It is the ‘King’s highway’ along which everyone can travel to discover the truth of unconscious processes for themselves.”

Sibony clarifies his idea in the interview L’utilisation des rêves en psychothérapie with Maryse Siksou.

“The dream brings blocks of words, of “compacted” meanings, and we question, according to the good old method, each of these blocks, each of these points and which we associate around (we “unblock” around…), we let each point unfold according to the “fiber” which is its own.

I introduced this notion of the dream as fibered space in an article in the review Scilicet in 1972, and in a seminar that I gave at the University of Vincennes in 1973 under the title “Topologie et interpretation des rêves”, to which Jacques Lacan and his close retinue attended throughout the year.

The idea is that the dream is a sheaf, a bundle of fibers, each of which is associated with a “word” of the dream; interpretation makes the fibers appear, and one can pick an element from each, which is of course “displaced” in relation to the word that “produced” the fiber, and these elements are articulated with other elements taken in other fibers, to finally create a message which, once again, does not necessarily say the meaning of the dream because a dream has as many meanings as recipients to whom it is told, but which produces a strong statement, a relevant statement, which can restart the work.”

Key images in the dream (the ‘points’ of the base-space) can stand for entirely different situations in someone’s life (the points in the ‘fiber’ over an image). The therapist’s job is to find a suitable ‘section’ in this ‘sheaf’ to further the theraphy.

It’s a bit like translating a sentence from one language to another. Every word (point of the base-space) can have several possible translations with subtle differences (the points in the fiber over the word). It’s the translator’s job to find the best ‘section’ in this sheaf of possibilities.

This translation-analogy is used by Daniel Sibony in his paper Traduire la passe:

“It therefore operates just like the dream through articulated choices, from one fiber to another, in a bundle of speaking fibers; it articulates them by seeking the optimal section. In fact, the translation takes place between two fiber bundles, each in a language, but in the starting bundle the choice seems fixed by the initial text. However, more or less consciously, the translator “bursts” each word into a larger fiber, he therefore has a bundle of fibers where the given text seems after the fact a singular choice, which will produce another choice in the bundle of the other language.”

This paper also contains a pre-ChatGPT story (we’re in 1998), in which the language model fails because it has far too few alternatives in its fibers:

I felt it during a “humor festival” where I was approached by someone (who seemed to have some humor) and who was a robot. We had a brief conversation, very acceptable, beyond the conventional witticisms and knowing sighs he uttered from time to time to complain about the lack of atmosphere, repeating that after all we are not robots.

I thought at first that it must be a walking walkie-talkie and that in fact I was talking to a guy who was remote control from his cabin. But the object was programmed; the unforeseen effects of meaning were all the more striking. To my question: “Who created you?” he answered with a strange word, a kind of technical god.

I went on to ask him who he thought created me; his answer was immediate: “Oedipus”. (He knew, having questioned me, that I was a psychoanalyst.) The piquancy of his answer pleased me (without Oedipus, at least on a first level, no analyst). These bursts of meaning that we know in children, psychotics, to whom we attribute divinatory gifts — when they only exist, save their skin, questioning us about our being to defend theirs — , these random strokes of meaning shed light on the classic aftermaths where when a tile arrives, we hook it up to other tiles from the past, it ties up the pain by chaining the meaning.

Anyway, the conversation continuing, the robot asked me to psychoanalyse him; I asked him what he was suffering from. His answer was immediate: “Oedipus”.

Disappointing and enlightening: it shows that with each “word” of the interlocutor, the robot makes correspond a signifying constellation, a fiber of elements; choosing a word in each fiber, he then articulates the whole with obvious sequence constraints: a bit of readability and a certain phrasal push that leaves open the game of exchange. And now, in the fiber concerning the “psy” field, chance or constraint had fixed him on the same word, “Oedipus”, which, by repeating itself, closed the scene heavily.

Okay, we have a first potential approximation to Connes and Gauthier-Lafaye’s elusive topos, a sheaf of possible interpretation of base-words in a language.

But, the base-space is still rather discrete, or at best linearly ordered. And also in the fibers, and among the sections, there’s not much of a topology at work.

Perhaps, we should have a look at applications of topology and/or topos theory in large language models?



The shape of languages


Leila Schneps on Grothendieck

If you have neither the time nor energy to watch more than one interview or talk about Grothendieck’s life and mathematics, may I suggest to spare that privilege for Leila Schneps’ talk on ‘Le génie de Grothendieck’ in the ‘Thé & Sciences’ series at the Salon Nun in Paris.

I was going to add some ‘relevant’ time slots after the embedded YouTube-clip below, but I really think it is better to watch Leila’s interview in its entirety. Enjoy!

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Cartan meets Lacan

In the Grothendieck meets Lacan-post we did mention that Alain Connes wrote a book together with Patrick Gauthier-Lafaye “A l’ombre de Grothendieck et de Lacan, un topos sur l’inconscient”, on the potential use of Grothendieck’s toposes for the theory of unconsciousness, proposed by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.

A bit more on that book you can read in the topos of unconsciousness. For another take on this you can visit the blog of l’homme quantique – Sur les traces de Lévi-Strauss, Lacan et Foucault, filant comme le sable au vent marin…. There is a series of posts dedicated to the reading of ‘A l’ombre de Grothendieck et de Lacan’:

Alain Connes isn’t the first (former) Bourbaki-member to write a book together with a Lacan-disciple.

In 1984, Henri Cartan (one of the founding fathers of Bourbaki) teamed up with the French psychoanalyst (and student of Lacan) Jean-Francois Chabaud for “Le Nœud dit du fantasme – Topologie de Jacques Lacan”.

(Chabaud on the left, Cartan on the right, Cartan’s wife Nicole in the mddle)

“Dans cet ouvrage Jean François Chabaud, psychanalyste, effectue la monstration de l’interchangeabilité des consistances de la chaîne de Whitehead (communément nommée « Noeud dit du fantasme » ou du « Non rapport sexuel » dans l’aire analytique), et peut ainsi se risquer à proposer, en s’appuyant sur les remarques essentielles de Jacques Lacan, une écriture du virage, autre nom de la passe. Henri Cartan (1904-2008), l’un des Membres-fondateur de N. Bourbaki, a contribué à ce travail avec deux réflexions : la première, considère cette monstration et l’augmente d’une présentation ; la seconde, traite tout particulièrement de l’orientation des consistances. Une suite de traces d’une séquence de la chaîne précède ce cahier qui s’achève par : « L’en-plus-de-trait », une contribution à l’écriture nodale.”

Lacan was not only fascinated by the topology of surfaces such as the crosscap (see the topos of unconsciousness), but also by the theory of knots and links.

The Borromean link figures in Lacan’s world for the Real, the Imaginary and the Symbolic. The Whitehead link (that is, two unknots linked together) is thought to be the knot (sic) of phantasy.

In 1986, there was the exposition “La Chaine de J.H.C. Whitehead” in the
Palais de la découverte in Paris (from which also the Chabaud-Cartan picture above is taken), where la Salle de Mathématiques was filled with different models of the Whitehead link.

In 1988, the exposition was held in the Deutches Museum in Munich and was called “Wandlung – Darstellung der topologischen Transformationen der Whitehead-Kette”

The set-up in Munich was mathematically more interesting as one could see the link-projection on the floor, and use it to compute the link-number. It might have been even more interesting if the difference in these projections between two subsequent models was exactly one Reidemeister move

You can view more pictures of these and subsequent expositions on the page dedicated to the work of Jean-Francois Chabaud: La Chaîne de Whitehead ou Le Nœud dit du fantasme Livre et Expositions 1980/1997.

Part of the first picture featured also in the Hommage to Henri Cartan (1904-2008) by Michele Audin in the Notices of the AMS. She writes (about the 1986 exposition):

“At the time, Henri Cartan was 82 years old and retired, but he continued to be interested in mathematics and, as one sees, its popularization.”

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Bourbaki, Brassens, Hula Hoops and Coconuts

More than ten years ago, when I ran a series of posts on pre-WW2 Bourbaki congresses, I knew most of the existing B-literature. I’m afraid I forgot most of it, thereby missing opportunities to spice up a dull post (such as yesterday’s).

Right now, I need facts about the infamous ACNB and its former connection to Nancy, so I reread Liliane Beaulieu’s Bourbaki a Nancy:

(page 38) : “Like a theatrical canvas, “La Tribu” often carries as its header a subtitle, the product of its editor’s imagination, which brings out the theme of the congress, if necessary. There is thus a “De Nicolaıdes” congress in Nancy, “Du banc public” (reference to Brassens) that of the “Universites cogerees” (in October 68, at the time of co-management).”

The first La Ciotat congress (February 27 to March 6, 1955) was called ‘the congress of the public bench’ (‘banc public’ in French) where Serre and Cartan tried to press Bourbaki to opt for the by now standard approach to varieties (see yesterday), and the following Chicago-congress retaliated by saying that there were also public benches nearby, but of little use.

What I missed was the reference to French singer-songwriter George Brassens. In 1953, he wrote, composed and performed Bancs Public (later called ‘Les Amoureux des bancs publics’).

If you need further evidence (me, I’ll take Liliane’s word on anything B-related), here’s the refrain of the song:

“Les amoureux qui s’bécotent sur les bancs publics,
Bancs publics, bancs publics,
En s’foutant pas mal du regard oblique
Des passants honnêtes,
Les amoureux qui s’bécotent sur les bancs publics,
Bancs publics, bancs publics,
En s’disant des “Je t’aime'” pathétiques,
Ont des p’tits gueules bien sympathiques!

(G-translated as:
‘Lovers who smooch on public benches,
Public benches, public benches,
By not giving a damn about the sideways gaze
Honest passers-by,
The lovers who smooch on the public benches,
Public benches, public benches,
Saying pathetic “I love you” to each other,
Have very nice little faces!‘)

Compare this to page 3 of the corresponding “La Tribu”:

“Geometrie Algebrique : elle a une guele bien sympathique.”

(Algebraic Geometry : she has a very nice face)

More Bourbaki congresses got their names rather timely.

In the summer of 1959 (from June 25th – July 8th) there was a congress in Pelvout-le-Poet called ‘Congres du cerceau’.

‘Cerceau’ is French for Hula Hoop, whose new plastic version was popularized in 1958 by the Wham-O toy company and became a fad.

(Girl twirling Hula Hoop in 1958 – Wikipedia)

The next summer it was the thing to carry along for children on vacation. From the corresponding “La Tribu” (page 2):

“Le congres fut marque par la presence de nombreux enfants. Les distractions s’en ressentirent : baby-foot, biberon de l’adjudant (tres concurrence par le pastis), jeu de binette et du cerceau (ou faut-il dire ‘binette se jouant du cerceau’?) ; un bal mythique a Vallouise faillit faire passer la mesure.”
(try to G-translate it yourself…)

Here’s another example.

The spring 1949 congress (from April 13th-25th) was held at the Abbey of Royaumont and was called ‘le congres du cocotier’ (the coconut-tree congress).

From the corresponding “La Tribu 18”:

“Having absorbed a tough guinea pig, Bourbaki climbed to the top of the Royaumont coconut tree, and declared, to unanimous applause, that he would only rectify rectifiable curves, that he would treat rational mechanics over the field $\mathbb{Q}$, and, that with a little bit of vaseline and a lot of patience he would end up writing the book on algebraic topology.”

The guinea pig that congress was none other than Jean-Pierre Serre.

A year later (from April 5th-17th 1950) there was another Royaumont-congress called ‘le congres de la revanche du cocotier’ (the congress of the revenge of the coconut-tree).

From the corresponding La Tribu 22:

“The founding members had decided to take a dazzling revenge on the indiscipline young people; mobilising all the magical secrets unveiled to them by the master, they struck down the young people with various ailments; rare were those strong enough to jump over the streams of Royaumont.”

Here’s what Maurice Mashaal says about this in ‘Bourbaki – a secret society of mathematicians’ (page 113):

“Another prank among the members was called ‘le cocotier’ (the coconut tree). According to Liliane Beaulieu, this was inspired by a Polynesian custom where an old man climbs a palm tree and holds on tightly while someone shakes the trunk. If he manages to hold on, he remains accepted in the social group. Bourbaki translated this custom as the following: some members would set a mathematical trap for the others. If someone fell for it, they would yell out ‘cocotier’.”

May I be so bold as to suggest that perhaps this sudden interest in Polynesian habits was inspired by the recent release of L’ile aux cocotiers (1949), the French translation of Robert Gibbing’s book Coconut Island?

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From Weil’s foundations to schemes

Last time, we’ve seen that the first time ‘schemes’ were introduced was in ‘La Tribu’ (the internal Bourbaki-account of their congresses) of the May-June 1955 congress in Chicago.

Here, we will focus on the events leading up to that event. If you always thought Grothendieck invented the word ‘schemes’, here’s what Colin McLarty wrote:

“A story says that in a Paris café around 1955 Grothendieck asked his friends “what is a scheme?”. At the time only an undefined idea of “schéma” was current in Paris, meaning more or less whatever would improve on Weil’s foundations.” (McLarty in The Rising Sea)

What were Weil’s foundations of algebraic geometry?

Well, let’s see how Weil defined an affine variety over a field $k$. First you consider a ‘universal field’ $K$ containing $k$, that is, $K$ is an algebraically closed field of infinite transcendence degree over $k$. A point of $n$-dimensional affine space is an $n$-tuple $x=(x_1,\dots,x_n) \in K^n$. For such a point $x$ you consider the field $k(x)$ which is the subfield of $K$ generated by $k$ and the coordinates $x_i$ of $x$.

Alternatively, the field $k(x)$ is the field of fractions of the affine domain $R=k[z_1,\dots,z_n]/I$ where $I$ is the prime ideal of all polynomials $f \in k[z_1,\dots,z_n]$ such that $f(x) = f(x_1,\dots,x_n)=0$.

An affine $k$-variety $V$ is associated to a ‘generic point’ $x=(x_1,\dots,x_n)$, meaning that the field $k(x)$ is a ‘regular extension’ of $k$ (that is, for all field-extensions $k’$ of $k$, the tensor product $k(x) \otimes_k k’$ does not contain zero-divisors.

The points of $V$ are the ‘specialisations’ of $x$, that is, all points $y=(y_1,\dots,y_n)$ such that $f(y_1,\dots,y_n)=0$ for all $f \in I$.

Perhaps an example? Let $k = \mathbb{Q}$ and $K=\mathbb{C}$ and take $x=(i,\pi)$ in the affine plane $\mathbb{C}^2$. What is the corresponding prime ideal $I$ of $\mathbb{Q}[z_1,z_2]$? Well, $i$ is a solution to $z_1^2+1=0$ whereas $\pi$ is transcendental over $\mathbb{Q}$, so $I=(z_1^2+1)$ and $R=\mathbb{Q}[z_1,z_2]/I= \mathbb{Q}(i)[z_2]$.

Is $x=(i,\pi)$ a generic point? Well, suppose it were, then the points of the corresponding affine variety $V$ would be all couples $(\pm i, \lambda)$ with $\lambda \in \mathbb{C}$ which is the union of two lines in $\mathbb{C}^2$. But then $i \otimes 1 + 1 \otimes i$ is a zero-divisor in $\mathbb{Q}(x) \otimes_{\mathbb{Q}} \mathbb{Q}(i)$. So no, it is not a generic point over $\mathbb{Q}$ and does not define an affine $\mathbb{Q}$-variety.

If we would have started with $k=\mathbb{Q}(i)$, then $x=(i,\pi)$ is generic and the corresponding affine variety $V$ consists of all points $(i,\lambda) \in \mathbb{C}^2$.

If this is new to you, consider yourself lucky to be young enough to have learned AG from Fulton’s Algebraic curves, or Hartshorne’s chapter 1 if you were that ambitious.

By 1955, Serre had written his FAC, and Bourbaki had developed enough commutative algebra to turn His attention to algebraic geometry.

La Ciotat congress (February 27th – March 6th, 1955)

With a splendid view on the mediterranean, a small group of Bourbaki members (Henri Cartan (then 51), with two of his former Ph.D. students: Jean-Louis Koszul (then 34), and Jean-Pierre Serre (then 29, and fresh Fields medaillist), Jacques Dixmier (then 31), and Pierre Samuel (then 34), a former student of Zariski’s) discussed a previous ‘Rapport de Geometrie Algebrique'(no. 206) and arrived at some unanimous decisions:

1. Algebraic varieties must be sets of points, which will not change at every moment.
2. One should include ‘abstract’ varieties, obtained by gluing (fibres, etc.).
3. All necessary algebra must have been previously proved.
4. The main application of purely algebraic methods being characteristic p, we will hide nothing of the unpleasant phenomena that occur there.

(Henri Cartan and Jean-Pierre Serre, photo by Paul Halmos)

The approach the propose is clearly based on Serre’s FAC. The points of an affine variety are the maximal ideals of an affine $k$-algebra, this set is equipped with the Zariski topology such that the local rings form a structure sheaf. Abstract varieties are then constructed by gluing these topological spaces and sheaves.

At the insistence of the ‘specialistes’ (Serre, and Samuel who had just written his book ‘Méthodes d’algèbre abstraite en géométrie algébrique’) two additional points are adopted, but with some hesitation. The first being a jibe at Weil:
1. …The congress, being a little disgusted by the artificiality of the generic point, does not want $K$ to be always of infinite transcendent degree over $k$. It admits that generic points are convenient in certain circumstances, but refuses to see them put to all the sauces: one could speak of a coordinate ring or of a functionfield without stuffing it by force into $K$.
2. Trying to include the arithmetic case.

The last point was problematic as all their algebras were supposed to be affine over a field $k$, and they wouldn’t go further than to allow the overfield $K$ to be its algebraic closure. Further, (and this caused a lot of heavy discussions at coming congresses) they allowed their varieties to be reducible.

The Chicago congress (May 30th – June 2nd 1955)

Apart from Samuel, a different group of Bourbakis gathered for the ‘second Caucus des Illinois’ at Eckhart Hall, including three founding members Weil (then 49), Dixmier (then 49) and Chevalley (then 46), and two youngsters, Armand Borel (then 32) and Serge Lang (then 28).

Their reaction to the La Ciotat meeting (the ‘congress of the public bench’) was swift:

(page 1) : “The caucus discovered a public bench near Eckhart Hall, but didn’t do much with it.”
(page 2) : “The caucus did not judge La Ciotat’s plan beyond reproach, and proposed a completely different plan.”

They wanted to include the arithmetic case by defining as affine scheme the set of all prime ideals (or rather, the localisations at these prime ideals) of a finitely generated domain over a Dedekind domain. They continue:

(page 4) : “The notion of a scheme covers the arithmetic case, and is extracted from the illustrious works of Nagata, themselves inspired by the scholarly cogitations of Chevalley. This means that the latter managed to sell all his ideas to the caucus. The Pope of Chicago, very happy to be able to reject very far projective varieties and Chow coordinates, willingly rallied to the suggestions of his illustrious colleague. However, we have not attempted to define varieties in the arithmetic case. Weil’s principle is that it is unclear what will come out of Nagata’s tricks, and that the only stable thing in arithmetic theory is reduction modulo $p$ a la Shimura.”

“Contrary to the decisions of La Ciotat, we do not want to glue reducible stuff, nor call them varieties. … We even decide to limit ourselves to absolutely irreducible varieties, which alone will have the right to the name of varieties.”

The insistence on absolutely irreducibility is understandable from Weil’s perspective as only they will have a generic point. But why does he go along with Chevalley’s proposal of an affine scheme?

In Weil’s approach, a point of the affine variety $V$ determined by a generic point $x=(x_1,\dots,x_n)$ determines a prime ideal $Q$ of the domain $R=k[x_1,\dots,x_n]$, so Chevalley’s proposal to consider all prime ideals (rather than only the maximal ideals of an affine algebra) seems right to Weil.

However in Weil’s approach there are usually several points corresponding to the same prime ideal $Q$ of $R$, namely all possible embeddings of the ring $R/Q$ in that huge field $K$, so whenever $R/Q$ is not algebraic over $k$, there are infinitely Weil-points of $V$ corresponding to $Q$ (whence the La Ciotat criticism that points of a variety were not supposed to change at every moment).

According to Ralf Krömer in his book Tool and Object – a history and philosophy of category theory this shift from Weil-points to prime ideals of $R$ may explain Chevalley’s use of the word ‘scheme’:

(page 164) : “The ‘scheme of the variety’ denotes ‘what is invariant in a variety’.”

Another time we will see how internal discussion influenced the further Bourbaki congresses until Grothendieck came up with his ‘hyperplan’.

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The birthplace of schemes

Wikipedia claims:

“The word scheme was first used in the 1956 Chevalley Seminar, in which Chevalley was pursuing Zariski’s ideas.”

and refers to the lecture by Chevalley ‘Les schemas’, given on December 12th, 1955 at the ENS-based ‘Seminaire Henri Cartan’ (in fact, that year it was called the Cartan-Chevalley seminar, and the next year Chevalley set up his own seminar at the ENS).

Items recently added to the online Bourbaki Archive give us new information on time and place of the birth of the concept of schemes.

From May 30th till June 2nd 1955 the ‘second caucus des Illinois’ Bourbaki-congress was held in ‘le grand salon d’Eckhart Hall’ at the University of Chicago (Weil’s place at that time).

Only six of the Bourbaki members were present:

  • Jean Dieudonne (then 49), the scribe of the Bourbaki-gang.
  • Andre Weil (then 49), called ‘Le Pape de Chicago’ in La Tribu, and responsible for his ‘Foundations of Algebraic Geometry’.
  • Claude Chevalley (then 46), who wanted a better, more workable version of algebraic geometry. He was just nominated professor at the Sorbonne, and was prepping for his seminar on algebraic geometry (with Cartan) in the fall.
  • Pierre Samuel (then 34), who studied in France but got his Ph.D. in 1949 from Princeton under the supervision of Oscar Zariski. He was a Bourbaki-guinea pig in 1945, and from 1947 attended most Bourbaki congresses. He just got his book Methodes d’algebre abstraite en geometrie algebrique published.
  • Armand Borel (then 32), a Swiss mathematician who was in Paris from 1949 and obtained his Ph.D. under Jean Leray before moving on to the IAS in 1957. He was present at 9 of the Bourbaki congresses between 1955 and 1960.
  • Serge Lang (then 28), a French-American mathematician who got his Ph.D. in 1951 from Princeton under Emil Artin. In 1955, he just got a position at the University of Chicago, which he held until 1971. He attended 7 Bourbaki congresses between 1955 and 1960.

The issue of La Tribu of the Eckhart-Hall congress is entirely devoted to algebraic geometry, and starts off with a bang:

“The Caucus did not judge the plan of La Ciotat above all reproaches, and proposed a completely different plan.

I – Schemes
II – Theory of multiplicities for schemes
III – Varieties
IV – Calculation of cycles
V – Divisors
VI – Projective geometry

In the spring of that year (February 27th – March 6th, 1955) a Bourbaki congress was held ‘Chez Patrice’ at La Ciotat, hosting a different group of Bourbaki members (Samuel was the singleton intersection) : Henri Cartan (then 51), Jacques Dixmier (then 31), Jean-Louis Koszul (then 34), and Jean-Pierre Serre (then 29, and fresh Fields medaillist).

In the La Ciotat-Tribu,nr. 35 there are also a great number of pages (page 14 – 25) used to explain a general plan to deal with algebraic geometry. Their summary (page 3-4):

“Algebraic Geometry : She has a very nice face.

Chap I : Algebraic varieties
Chap II : The rest of Chap. I
Chap III : Divisors
Chap IV : Intersections”

There’s much more to say comparing these two plans, but that’ll be for another day.

We’ve just read the word ‘schemes’ for the first (?) time. That unnumbered La Tribu continues on page 3 with “where one explains what a scheme is”:

So, what was their first idea of a scheme?

Well, you had your favourite Dedekind domain $D$, and you considered all rings of finite type over $D$. Sorry, not all rings, just all domains because such a ring $R$ had to have a field of fractions $K$ which was of finite type over $k$ the field of fractions of your Dedekind domain $D$.

They say that Dedekind domains are the algebraic geometrical equivalent of fields. Yeah well, as they only consider $D$-rings the geometric object associated to $D$ is the terminal object, much like a point if $D$ is an algebraically closed field.

But then, what is this geometric object associated to a domain $R$?

In this stage, still under the influence of Weil’s focus on valuations and their specialisations, they (Chevalley?) take as the geometric object $\mathbf{Spec}(R)$, the set of all ‘spots’ (taches), that is, local rings in $K$ which are the localisations of $R$ at prime ideals. So, instead of taking the set of all prime ideals, they prefer to take the set of all stalks of the (coming) structure sheaf.

But then, speaking about sheaves is rather futile as there is no trace of any topology on this set, then. Also, they make a big fuss about not wanting to define a general schema by gluing together these ‘affine’ schemes, but then they introduce a notion of ‘apparentement’ of spots which basically means the same thing.

It is still very early days, and there’s a lot more to say on this, but if no further documents come to light, I’d say that the birthplace of ‘schemes’, that is , the place where the first time there was a documented consensus on the notion, is Eckhart Hall in Chicago.

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Le Guide Bourbaki : La Ciotat (2)

Rereading the Grothendieck-Serre correspondence I found a letter from Serre to Grothendieck, dated October 22nd 1958, which forces me to retract some claims from the previous La Ciotat post.

Serre writes this ten days after the second La Ciotat-congress (La Tribu 46), held from October 5th-12th 1958:

“The Bourbaki meeting was very pleasant; we all stayed in the home of a man called Guérin (a friend of Schwartz’s – a political one, I think); Guérin himself was in Paris and we had the whole house to ourselves. We worked outside most of the time, the weather was beautiful, we went swimming almost every day; in short, it was one of the best meetings I have ever been to.”

So far so good, we did indeed find Guérin’s property ‘Maison Rustique Olivette’ as the location of Bourbaki’s La Ciotat-congresses. But, Serre was present at both meetings (the earlier one, La Tribu 35, was held from February 27th – March 6th, 1955), so wouldn’t he have mentioned that they returned to that home when both meetings took place there?

From La Tribu 35:

“The Congress was held “chez Patrice”, in La Ciotat, from February 27 to March 6, 1955. Present: Cartan, Dixmier, Koszul, Samuel, Serre, le Tableau (property, fortunately divisible, of Bourbaki).”

In the previous post I mentioned that there was indeed a Hotel-Restaurant “Chez Patrice” in La Ciotat, but mistakingly assumed both meetings took place at Guérin’s property.

Can we locate this place?

On the backside of this old photograph

we read:

“Chez Patrice”
seul au bord de la mer
Hotel Restaurant tout confort
Spécialités Provençales
Plage privée Parc auto
Ouvert toute l’année
Sur la route de La Ciota-Bandol
Tel 465
La Ciota (B.-d.-R.)

So it must be on the scenic coastal road from La Ciotat to Bandol. My best guess is that “Chez Patrice” is today the one Michelin-star Restaurant “La Table de Nans”, located at 126 Cor du Liouquet, in La Ciotat.

Their website has just this to say about the history of the place:

“Located in an exceptional setting between La Ciotat and Saint Cyr, the building of “l’auberge du Revestel” was restored in 2016.”

And a comment on a website dedicated to the nearby Restaurant Roche Belle confirms that “Chez Patrice”, “l’auberge du Revestel” and “table de Nans” were all at the same place:

“Nous sommes locaux et avons découverts ce restaurant seulement le mois dernier (suite infos copains) alors que j’ai passé une partie de mon enfance et adolescence “chez Patrice” (Revestel puis chez Nans)!!!”

I hope to have it right this time: the first Bourbaki La Ciotat-meeting in 1955 took place “Chez Patrice” whereas the second 1958-congress was held at ‘Maison Rustique Olivette’, the property of Schwartz’s friend Daniel Guérin.

Still, if you compare Serre’s letter to this paragraph from Schwartz’s autobiography, there’s something odd:

“I knew Daniel Guérin very well until his death. Anarchist, close to Trotskyism, he later joined Marceau Prevert’s PSOP. He had the kindness, after the war, to welcome in his property near La Ciotat one of the congresses of the Bourbaki group. He shared, in complete camaraderie, our life and our meals for two weeks. I even went on a moth hunt at his house and caught a death’s-head hawk-moth (Acherontia atropos).”

Schwartz was not present at the second La Ciotat-meeting, and he claims Guérin shared meals with the Bourbakis whereas Serre says he was in Paris and they had the whole house to themselves.

Moral of the story: accounts right after the event (Serre’s letter) are more trustworthy than later recollections (Schwartz’s autobiography).

Dear Collaborators of Nicolas Bourbaki, please make all Bourbaki material (Diktat, La Tribu, versions) publicly available, certainly those documents older than 50 years.

Perhaps you can start by adding the missing numbers 36 and 49 to your La Tribu: 1940-1960 list.

Thank you!

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Le Guide Bourbaki : Celles-sur-Plaine

Bourbaki held His Spring-Congresses between 1952 and 1954 in Celles-sur-Plaine in the Vosges department.

  • La Tribu 27, ‘Congres croupion des Vosges’ (March 8th-16th, 1952)
  • La Tribu 30, ‘Congres nilpotent’ (March 1st-8th, 1953)
  • La Tribu 33, ‘Congres de la tangente’ (March 28th-April 3rd, 1954)

As we can consult the Bourbaki Diktat of the first two meetings, there is no mystery as to their place of venue. From Diktat 27:

“The Congress of March 1952 will be held as planned in Celles-sur-Plaine (Vosges) at the Hotel de la Gare, from Sunday March 9 at 2 p.m. to Sunday March 16 in the evening. A train leaves Nancy on Sunday morning at 8:17 a.m., direction Raon-l’Etappe, where we arrive at 9:53 a.m.; from there a bus leaves for Celles-sur-Plaine (11 km away) at 10 am. Please bring big shoes for the walks (there will probably be a lot of snow on the heights).”

Even though few French villages have a train station, most have a ‘Place de la Gare’, indicating the spot where the busses arrive and leave. Celles-sur-Plaine is no exception, and one shouldn’t look any further to find the ‘Hotel de la Gare’.

This Hotel still exists today, but is now called ‘Hotel des Lacs’.

At the 1952 meeting, Grothendieck is listed as a ‘visitor’ (he was a guinea-pig earlier and would only become a Bourbaki-member in 1955). He was invited to settle disputes over the texts on EVTs (Topological Vector Spaces). In the quote below from La Tribu 27 ‘barrel’ refers of course to barreled space:

“But above all a drama was born from the laborious delivery of the EVTs. Eager to overcome the reluctance of the opposition, the High Commissioner attempted a blackmail tactic: he summoned Grothendieck! He hoped to frighten the Congress members to such an extent that they would be ready to swallow barrel after barrel for fear of undergoing a Grothendieckian redaction. But the logicians were watching: they told Grothendieck that, if all the empty sets are equal, some at least are more equal than others; the poor man went berserk, and returned to Nancy by the first train.”

The 1953 meeting also had a surprise guest, no doubt on Weil’s invitation, Frank Smithies, who we remember from the Bourbaki wedding joke.

Frank Smithies seated in the middle, in between Ralph Boas (left) and Andre Weil (right) at the Red Lion, Grantchester in 1939.

At the 1954 meeting we see a trace of Bourbaki’s efforts to get a position for Chevalley at the Sorbonne.

“Made sullen by the incessant rain, and exhausted by the electoral campaigns of La Sorbonne and the Consultative Committee, the faithful poured out their indecisive bile on the few drafts presented to them, and hardly took any serious decisions.”

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Charlie Hebdo on Grothendieck

Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical weekly newspaper, victim of a terroristic raid in 2015, celebrates the 30th anniversary of its restart in 1992 (it appeared earlier from 1969 till 1981).

Charlie’s collaborators have looked at figures who embody, against all odds, freedom, and one of the persons they selected is Alexandre Grothendieck, ‘Alexandre Grothendieck – l’équation libertaire’. Here’s why

“A Fields Medal winner, ecology pioneer and hermit, he threw honours, money and his career away to defend his ideas.”

If you want to learn something about Grothendieck’s life and work, you’d better read the Wikipedia entry than this article.

Some of the later paragraphs are even debatable:

“But at the end of his life, total derailment, he gets lost in the meanders of madness. Is it the effect of desperation? of too much freedom? or the abuse of logic (madness is not uncommon among mathematicians, from Kürt Godel to Grigori Perelman…)? The rebel genius withdraws to a village in the Pyrenees and refuses all contact with the outside world.”

“However, he silently continues to do math. Upon his death in 2014, thousands of pages will be discovered, of which the mathematician Michel Demazure estimates that “it will take fifty years to transform [them] into accessible mathematics”.”

If you want to read more on these ‘Grothendieck gribouillis’, see here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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