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Category: stories

G+ recovery 1 : Grothendieck

My Google+ account is going away on April 2, 2019, and all attempts to automatically backup my G+ posts seem to fail so far. So i’ll try to rescue here some of them, in chronological order and around one theme. Today, Grothendieck-stuff, part one.

May 30th, 2013

Recordings of a 1972 talk by Grothendieck at Cern “Réflexions sur la science- responsabilité du savant”.
If you don’t have time to listen to all 138 minutes, try to grab from part1 the fragment 29:10 – 30:40 on “the strange ritual of inviting experts to give a talk on some esoteric subject for an audience of 50 to 100 people, one or two of whom will perhaps be able to painfully understand a few bits and pieces, and all others find themselves in a position of humiliation, as they gave in to social pressure to be there, even though the topic itself didn’t interest them at all” (poor translation on my part)
These recordings are illustrative for Grothendieck’s talks in his ‘Survivre’ period, early 70ties. 
(h/t Matilde Marcolli on FB)

June 8th, 2013

Grothendieck’s christmas tree

In the pdf-version of “Recoltes et Semailles” Grothendieck writes on page 463 in the Yin-Yang chapter:

“j’ai fini par aboutir à un diagramme, vaguement en forme d’arbre de Noël”

Here’s the actual diagram, from the original typescript of “Les portes sur l’univers”, the appendix to the ‘Clef du Yin et du Yang’.

Sadly, this appendix (and the many drawings contained in it) didn’t make it into the pdf-release of RecS…

June 9th, 2013

Grothendieck’s yin-yang sunflower

Grothendieck’s ‘Les Portes sur l’Univers’ (Gateways to the Universe(?)) is a truly fascinating text, containing several mysterious drawings (and even a bit of icosahedral-math towards the end).

On PU46, he draws the sunflower of yin and yang, having 12 leafs (he claims, corresponding to 12 yin-terms on the inner circle, 12 yang-terms on the outer circle, as well as to the 12 signs of the zodiac…).

He continues: “On l’appellera, au choix, l’accordeon cosmique, ou l’harmonica cosmique, ou (pour mettre tout le monde d’accord) l’harmonium cosmique”.
(One might call it, as one prefers, the cosmic accordion, or the cosmic harmonica, or (in order to seek general consensus) the *cosmic harmony*).

June 10th, 2013

Grothendieck’s icosahedral theorem

On april 12th 1986, Grothendieck decides to add a mathematical annexe to his esoteric text ‘Les portes sur l’univers’. 

“Par contre, c’est peu pour mon ardeur de mathématicien, laquelle s’est a nouveau réveillée ces jours derniers – et voila repartie ma réflexion sur l’icosaèdre, cet amour mathématique de mon âge mur! Je vais donc peut-être rajouter a ces notes quelques compléments sur la combinatoire de l’icosaèdre et sur la géométrie des ensembles a six éléments…”

He starts with a set S of 6 elements (the vertices), any pair of elements is an edge and any triple a triangle. He then calls a set of triangles F an *icosahedral structure* provided every edge is contained in exactly two triangles in F.

His main result is that all such icosahedral structures are isomorphic (and has exactly 60 isomorphisms), an icosahedral structure consist of exactly 10 triangles and a choice of triangle determines the structure uniquely. Moreover, there are exactly 12 different such octahedral structures and there is an involution on this set coming from ‘complementary’ structures.

At a first glance, Grothendieck’s result appears to be closely related to one of the surprises in finite group theory: the outer automorphism of the symmetric group on 6 letters.

For more on this and related mathematical mysteries of the octahedron, try:

+John Baez  ‘Some Thoughts on the Number 6’  

+Noah Snyder  ‘The Outer Automorphism of S_6’

my own ‘Klein’s dessins d’enfant and the buckyball’

December 18th, 2013

for Grothendieck aficionados

a chance discovery last month en route from Les Vans – Lablachere (in the Ardeche region), a ‘ferronnerie d’art’ (a wrought-iron workshop) called ‘La Clef des Songes’.

All 315 pages of this Grothendieck meditation from 1987 can be found here.

The 691 pages of ‘Notes pour la clef des songes’ are a bit harder to get. Fortunately, the mysterious website ‘l’astree’ offers them as a series of 23 pdfs here. Enjoy the read!

January 3rd, 2014

Why did Grothendieck quit mathematics?

After yesterday’s post on the striking similarities between the lives of Grothendieck and JD Salinger it sure felt weird to stumble upon this footnote in “La Clef des Songes”  

Probably I’m reading way too much into it, but it appears to indicate that Grothendieck stopped doing mathematics to become … a writer!

April 23rd, 2014

Grothendieck documentary available on DVD

+catherine aira and Yves Le Pestipon made a 90 minute long documentary “Alexander Grothendieck, sur les routes d’un genie” which had successful showings in universities, at the Novela science festival, on Toulouse television, and elsewhere. It will be shown in Nantes, Toulouse, Montpellier, and Montreal.

Yves Le Pestipon is one of the people behind the mysterious website which has (among many other things) posts on Grothendieck containing hints to his present whereabouts…

Here are some YouTube clips:


Here’s the tumblr page of the project:

All of us who cannot attend the viewings can still order the DVD for 25 Euros (20 Euros in France) by sending an email to

A new release of the DVD, containing English subtitles, will be available soon.

Thanks to +Adeel Khan Yusufzai +David Roberts and +catherine aira 

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Rarer books: Singmaster’s notes

David Singmaster‘s “Notes on Rubik’s magic cube” are a collectors item, but it is still possible to buy a copy. I own a fifth edition (august 1980).

These notes capture the Rubik craze of those years really well.

Here’s a Conway story, from Siobhan Roberts’ excellent biography Genius at Play.

The ICM in Helsinki in 1978 was Conway’s last shot to get the Fields medal, but this was the last thing on his mind. He just wanted a Rubik cube (then, iron-curtain times, only sold in Hungary), so he kept chasing Hungarians at the meeting, hoping to obtain one. Siobhan writes (p. 239):

“The Fields Medals went to Pierre Deligne, Charles Fefferman, Grigory Margulis, and Daniel Quillen. The Rubik’s cube went to Conway.”

After his Notes, David Singmaster produced a follow-up newsletter “The Cubic Circular”. Only 5 magazines were published, of which 3 were double issues, between the Autumn of 1981 and the summer of 1985.

These magazines were reproduced on this page.

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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.

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in praise of libraries

I’m back in Antwerp for over a week now, and finally got hold of our copy of Shimura’s “Introduction to the arithmetic theory of automorphic functions”.

The sad story of disappearing libraries at our university, and possibly elsewhere (everywhere?).

Over 20 years ago our maths department shared a building with the language departments, as well as a library.

The ground floor was taken up by languages, science books were in the cellar. There were years I spend more time on the ground floor than in the maths section.

I must have read most of the Dutch novels published between 1980 and 2000. For some time I could even pass as a Joyce-scholar, at least to those interested in a tiny part of Finnegans Wake.

All that changed when they united the three different branches of Antwerp university and we had to move to another campus.

We were separated from the language departments (they moved to the center of town) and, sadly, also from their library.

On the positive side, we moved to a nice building with a gorgeous library. And, an added bonus, it was on the same floor as my office. To kill an hour it was fun to stroll over to the library and spend some time between books and journals.

Then, some years ago, they closed down the maths-library and moved a tiny fraction of it to the science-library (located at a different campus).

Administration argued that too few people visited the library to keep it open.

But more important, they needed the space to create what they call a ‘study landscape’: a lounge where students can hang out, having enough power outlets for all their computers and smartphones.

So, the maths-library had to go for a place where, during term, students can recharge their phones, and during examination periods like now, students can sit together to study.

It seems that millennials need to have visual confirmation that their fellow students are also offline.

Today even the science-library is transformed into such a study-landscape, and only a handful of math-books remain on the shelves (well-hidden behind another door).

For the few odd ones, like me, who still want to browse through a book occasionally, you have to request for it online.

A few days later you get an email saying that your request is granted (they make it sound as if this is a huge favour), and then they need some more days to get the book from the storehouse and deliver it (sometimes randomly) to one of the few remaining university libraries, sorry, study landscapes…

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The return of the Scottish solids

In Januari’s issue of the Notices of the AMS there’s a paper by Mohammad Ghomi Dürer’s Unfolding Problem for Convex Polyhedra.

Here are the opening lines:

“Convex polyhedra are among the oldest mathematical objects. Indeed the five platonic solids, which constitute the climax of Euclid’s books, were already known to the ancient people of Scotland some 4,000 years ago; see Figure 1.”

It sure would make a good story, the (ancient) Scotts outsmarting the Greek in discovering the five Platonic solids. Sadly, the truth is different.

Once again, hat tip to +David Roberts on Google+ for commenting on the AMS announcement and for linking to a post by John Baez and a couple of older posts here refuting this claim.

Perhaps the most readable of the two posts is:

Scottish solids, final(?) comments

in which I tell the story of the original post and its aftermath. The bottom-line is this:

Summarizing : the Challifour photograph is not taken at the Ashmolean museum, but at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and consists of 5 of their artifacts (or 4 if ball 3 and 4 are identical) vaguely resembling cube, tetrahedron, dodecahedron (twice) and octahedron. The fifth Platonic solid, the icosahedron, remains elusive.

David Roberts drafted a letter to the editor of the Notices of the AMS.

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