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Le Guide Bourbaki : Pelvoux

Pelvoux is a former commune (now merged into Vallouise-Pelvoux) in the Hautes-Alpes department in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region in southeastern France. No less than five summer-Bourbaki congresses took place in Pelvoux:

  • La Tribu 25 : Congres oecumenique de Pelvoux (June 25th – July 8th 1951)
  • La Tribu 28 : Congres de la motorisation de l’ane qui trotte (June 25th – July 8th 1952)
  • La Tribu 45 : Congres des hyperplans (June 25th – July 7th 1958)
  • La Tribu 48 : Congres de cerceau (June 25th – July 8th 1959)
  • La Tribu 51 : Congres un peu sec (June 25th – July 7th 1960)

Bourbaki’s Diktat of the 1951-meeting tells us:

“The 1951 Ecumenical Congress will be held at the Hotel d’Ailefroide, Pelvoux-le-Poet (Hautes Alpes), from June 25 at 10 a.m. to July 8 at 6 p.m. The recommended means of communication are:
A) The train, Briancon line, get off at Argentiers la Bessee then the bus, direct to the hotel.
B) plane, boat, helicopter
Please do not confuse the Hotel d’Ailefroide in Pelvoux-le-Poet with the locality of Ailefroide which is elsewhere.”

You can still book a stay at Le Chalet Hotel d’Ailefroide in Pelvoux, but we will see that this is not the place we are looking for.

From the history of the Rolland family in Ailefroide:

“In 1896, Jean, the older brother of our grandfather Pierre, built two hotels simultaneously: the Hôtel d’Ailefroide in the hamlet of Poêt, very close to our family home, and the Chalet Hôtel d’Ailefroide, very close to our chalet ‘le Saint Pierre’.”

The ‘Hôtel d’Ailefroide’ in Poêt no longer functions as hotel, but some old postcards of its circulate on the web:

To convince ourselves that this is really the place of venue of the Bourbaki-congresses, compare the balustrade of the terras, and the main entrance door of the Hotel to these two pictures taken at the 1951-conference:

(From left to right: Jacques Dixmier, Jean Dieudonne, Pierre Samuel, Andre Weil, Jean Delsarte, and partially hidden, Laurent Schwartz.)

(Laurent Schwartz before Bourbaki’s famous portable blackboard.)

We’ve seen that in Amboise, Bourbaki made pilgrimages to Chancay. When in Pelvoux, He made a pilgrimage towards Les Bans, where Herbrand fell to his death.

Jacques Herbrand was considered one of the greatest younger logicians and number-theorists when he fell to his death on july 27th 1931, only 23 years old, while mountain-climbing in the Massif des Ecrins.

He was awarded a Rockefeller fellowship that enabled him to study in Germany in 1931, first with John von Neumann in Berlin, then during June with Emil Artin in Hamburg, and finally with Emmy Noether in Göttingen.

Herbrand was a close friend of Andre Weil and, in particular, of Claude Chevalley. From Chevalley is the quote: “Jacques Herbrand would have hated Bourbaki”.

In the summer-vacation of 1931 he went mountain-climbing with a couple of friends in the French Alps. They set off from Le refuge de la Pilatte

and took the normal route to the south summit of “Les Bans” (the blue, followed by green track in the map below). A more detailed description of the route and its difficulties can be found here.

They did reach the summit, as illustrated by this classic picture of Herbrand (in the mddle) but the accident happened in the descent.

The French mathematical society has donated a commemorative plaque to the chapel of Notre Dame des Neiges in La Bérarde.

For much more information, see this excellent article by Mathouriste.

From La Tribu 25 (translated by Maurice Mashaal in Bourbaki, a secret society of mathematicians, page 108):

“In addition to the regime imposed by the High Commisions, a terrible schism threatens Bourbaki, that between the mountaineers and the couch potatoes. Faced with an alpine valley, one person is afraid of snow and makes a dash for the Tropics, another rebels against ‘these horrible mountains, enormous masses lacking formality and structure’, a third, motorized, is surprised by the insistence of the mountaineers to be driven to the bottom of each and every valley and abandons them to their sad fate. On the other hand, a delegation representing all ages and ranks sets off to survey glaciers and neves, defy crevasses and mountain sickness, and plant Bourbaki’s flag above Refuge Caron, at 3160 meters.”

Mashaal’s book also contains a picture (copyright Archives Association de N. Bourbaki) of the delegation of mountaineers, taken on Wednesday July 4th 1951, with the Barre des Ecrins in the background:

From left to right: Laurent Schwartz, Andre Weil, Pierre Cartier, Pierre Samuel, Jean-Pierre Serre, and their guide. Presumably, Terry Mirkil took the photograph.

Present at the congress were: Cartan, Delsarte, Dieudonne, Dixmier, Godement, Sammy, Samuel, Schwartz, Serre, Weil; the Foreign visitors : Hochschild, Borel,and Guinea pigs : Cartier and Mirkil.

I’ll let you figure out who Bourbaki’s couch potatoes were.

As we are on a mission to find all places of Bourbaki congresses in the 50ties, does the building of the ‘Hôtel d’Ailefroide’ in Pelvoux-le-Poêt still exists, and what is its exact location?

Coordinates: 44.853904, 6.492673.

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Le Guide Bourbaki : Amboise

Between 1955 and 1960 four Bourbaki congresses were held in Amboise, a small market town on the river Loire, and once home of the French royal court.

  • La Tribu 38, from March 11th-17th 1956, ‘Congres des trois angles plats’
  • La Tribu 40, fromOctober 7th-14th 1956, ‘Congres de l’intelligence peu commune’
  • La Tribu 41, from March 17th-24th 1957, ‘Congres du foncteur inflexible’
  • La Tribu 47, from March 7thh-14th 1959, ‘Congres “Chez mon cousin”‘

Seldom a congress-location was described in such detail. On page 1 of La Tribu 38 one reads:

‘The congress was held in Amboise from March 11th till March 17th 1956, in the salons de l’Hotel de la Breche, situated in the rue de Pocé, between the railway station and the bridge.’

Hotel de la Breche, Amboise in 1956 (Photo from Bourbaki et la Touraine by Jacques Borowczyk)

Today, there is no rue de Pocé in Amboise, but the Hotel de la Breche still exists, the restaurant run by a father-daughter combo as chefs. Its address is 26, Rue Jules Ferry, Rive Droite, 37400 Amboise. The Rue Jules Ferry goes from the centre of Amboise in the direction of nearby Pocé-sur-Cisse so it may have been named Rue de Pocé in the 50ties. It definitely is the same Hotel.

In this period several of the Bourbaki-members obtained prestigious positions at Institutes and Universities, resulting in some banter in La Tribu.

In La Tribu 38 page 2 the expulsion is threatened of all members which are not ‘Professors of the first rank’.

“In the meantime, the regulations have been supplemented by articles making it compulsory to wear a broken collar and a tie, the use of the word ‘Monsieur’ when speaking of the undisputed leaders of La Sorbonne and the College, formal address will be compulsory between members, and the guinea pigs will use the third person to address their elders.”

Recall that Jean-Pierre Serre received the Fields medal at age 27 in 1954, and was nominated in 1956 as the youngest Professor of the Collège de France (chair of algebra and geometry).

Claude Chevalley had a difficult time after WW2 to get a position at a French university as he stayed in the US when war broke out. Eventually his friends managed to create a chair for him at La Sorbonne in 1957 (chair of analytic geometry and group theory). (see here for a list of all chairs in mathematics over the years).

From La Tribu 47 page 2:

“Inspired by his writings on Logic, Bourbaki wondered if the system of axioms formed by the Motchane Institute, the Princeton Institute, the College, Polytechnique and the little Sorbonne is compatible; it seems that we are on the way to an affirmative answer thanks to the work of various congressmen whom La Tribu does not want to name.”

Here, ‘l’Institut Motchane’ if of course the IHES, which was founded in 1958 by businessman and mathematical physicist Léon Motchane, with the help of Robert Oppenheimer and Jean Dieudonné, who would become the first permanent professor. Dieudonne accepted the position only after Grothendieck was also offered a position.

L’Institut de Princeton is the Institute for Advanced Studies where Andre Weil obtained a permanent position in 1958. We saw already that ‘College’ means Serre, and ‘Sorbonne’ Chevalley.

Amboise is not far from Chancay where the second and third pre-WW2 Bourbaki-conferences were held, at the estate of the parents of Chevalley in La Massotterie, where this iconic picture was taken.

During at least three of the four meetings in Amboise a pilgrimage to Chancay was organised.

In La Tribu 38 on page 2:

“A pilgrimage to Chancy gives rise to a great sponging session. Some will regret that there was no cellar visit session.”

In La Tribu 40 on page 2:

“We find all the same the strength and the courage to go to Chancay to taste white wine, and meditate on the sheaves of germs of carrots.”

Finally, in La Tribu 47 on page 2:

“Accompanied by a plumber, the Congress made a pilgrimage to Chancay; he finds that the pipes were not leaking excessively, and that the tap at Vouvray was even working very well.”

Note that Vouvray is an ‘appellation d’origine contrôlée’ of white wines produced around the village Vouvray, so all white wines from Chancay are Vouvray-wines.

The first few pages of most La Tribu-issues are full of these tiny tidbits of French knowledge. Perhaps I should start another series ‘La Tribu Trivia’?

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Le Guide Bourbaki : Sallieres-les-bains

For three summers in a row, Bourbaki held its congres in ‘Sallieres-les-bains’, located near Die, in the Drôme.

  • La Tribu 36, from June 27th till July 9th 1955
  • La Tribu 39, from June 24th till July 7th 1956, ‘Congres des Tapis’
  • La Tribu 42, from June 23rd till July 7th 1957, ‘Congres oecumenique du diabolo’

There are several ways to determine the exact location of a Bourbaki congres.

The quickest one is to get hold of the corresponding Diktat which often not only gives the address, but also travel instructions on how to get there. But strangely, no Diktats for congresses after 1953 are cleared by the ACNB.

Next, one can look in the previous La Tribu issue, as it contains a section on the next congres. In La Tribu 35 we find on page 2 : “Next congres : from June 25th till July 6th, in a location to be determined”. La Tribu 38 on page 5 reads (rough translation)

Next congres : will be held around the usual dates (June 23rd till July 7th, with a margin of 2 or 3 days). To facilitate things for Borel and Weil, Koko (=Koszul) will quickly look for a pleasant place in the Vosges or l’Alsace region. If this fails, he’ll immediately warn Cartan who will then take care of Die.

La Tribu 41 mentions on page 6: next congress will be held in Die from June 23rd till July 7th.

Finally, it may be that La Tribu itself gives more details. Strangely, La Tribu 36 is not among the issues recently cleared by the ACNB.

We know of its existence from Kromer’s paper La Machine de Grothendieck, and from a letter from Serre to Grothendieck from July 13th 1955 in which he writes that the Bourbaki congres in Sallieres-les-bains went well and that Grothendieck’s paper on Homological algebra (now known as the Tohoku-paper) was carefully read and converted everyone (‘even Dieudonne, who seems completely functorised’).

In La Tribu 39 we immediately strike gold, the heading tells us that the congres was held in the ‘Etablissement Thermo-resineux de Sallieres les bains’.

But, if you google for this, all you get are some pretty old postcards, such as this one

with one exception, a site set up to save the chapel of the Thermes de Sallieres-les-bains, which gives some historical information (google-translated):

“In Die, in the middle of the 19th century, the thermo-resinous establishments of Salières-les-bains opened. Until 1972, i.e. for 120 years, spa guests came there every summer to treat their bronchial tubes and rheumatism with the vapours of mugho pine. The center of Die and its cathedral being 4km away, it is in this 51m² chapel that the curists gathered. Mass was even sometimes said there because a priest was regularly among the spa guests. But after the closure, the small family farm can no longer maintain all the large buildings of the inn and their chapel, whose roof has now collapsed…”

And, there is the book Des bains de vapeurs térébenthinés aux pastilles de Pin mugho by Cécile Raynal, containing a short paragraph on the installation in Sallieres: (G-translate)

“Located a short distance from Martouret, this hydro-mineral establishment was created by a breeder, owner of the Sallieres estate, Mr. Taillotte. He equipped himself with facilities for resinous baths and also used hydrotherapy. More especially frequented by the patients of the surroundings, under the supervision of Dr. Magnan, a doctor from Die, the establishment charged moderate prices and functioned only in the summer. The installations would have lasted until the 1970s.”

So, it is perfectly possible that the Bourbakis stayed here in the mid 50ties. But, how did they know of this place and what’s the link with Cartan?

If you look at the map (Sallieres is the red marker) you’ll find in the immediate neighborhood the former Abbey of Valcroissant (for the Dome du Glandasse read La Tribu 42, page2)

“The abbey was bought in the 1950s by the mathematician and philosopher Marcel Légaut and his wife, who chose to restore it while maintaining agricultural activity, particularly livestock. The restoration led in particular to the classification of the abbey in the inventory of historical monuments, a classification which took place on October 25, 1971. The restoration continued in the 21st century, led by Rémy Légaut, son of Marcel, his wife Martine, and the association of “Friends of Valcroissant” created by André Pitte and Serge Durand.”

Marcel Legaut was a very interesting person, who did a Grothendieck avant-la-lettre. From wikipedia

“Marcel Légaut was born in Paris, where he received his Ph.D. in Mathematics from the École Normale Supérieure in 1925. He taught in various faculties (among them Rennes and Lyon) until 1943. Under the impact of the Second World War and the rapid French defeat in 1940, Légaut acknowledged the lack of certain fundamental aspects in his life as well as in the lives of other university professors and civil servants. That is why he tried to alternate teaching with farm work. After three years his project was no longer accepted and he left the University to live as a shepherd in the Pré-Alpes (Haut-Diois).”

Legaut also wrote about twenty books on catholic faith. Again from wikipedia (and compare to Grothendieck’s later years):

“Légaut offers, in his books, his meditation, his testimony and his prayer, resulting from the intimate conversation he holds with himself, with his friends and with God. Meditation, testimony and prayer are, in every human being, the three categories corresponding to the different destinataries of intimate “conversation”, which is, in short, the sort of communication that every spiritual life aims to achieve according to its deep instinct.”

Marcel Legaut is also one of the 24 ‘mutants’ in Grothendieck’s Clef des songes. Is it possible the two met during the Bourbaki congres in Sallieres-les-bains?

In this article on Legaut there’s this recollection by Pierre Cartier:

“Pierre Cartier believes that Grothendieck and Légaut had already met in the fifties, on the occasion of a Bourbaki meeting which took place in the Alps in Pelvoux-le Poët. Légaut, who lived at no great distance, was acquainted with Henri Cartan, André Weil and other members of Bourbaki. Cartier remembers that he himself visited Légaut at the time, and recalls Légaut actually attending the Bourbaki meeting.”

I beg to differ on the place of the Bourbaki meeting, I’m convinced it was during a congres in Sallieres-les-bains. We now also see the link with Cartan. Probably it was Legaut who mentioned the nearby wellness-center to Cartan.

Do the buildings of the ‘Etablissement Thermo-resineux de Sallieres les bains’ still exist, and what is their exact location?

If you intend to go on a little pelgrimage, point your GPS to 44.737347, 5.398835. Perhaps you can stay for a few days in the renovated Abbaye de Valcroissant, they offer courses in herbal medicine, aromatherapy and natural cosmetics, which are organised from March to November.

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Le Guide Bourbaki : Marlotte

During the 1950ties, the Bourbakistas usually scheduled three meetings in the countryside. In the spring and autumn at places not too far from Paris (Royaumont, Celles-sur-plaines, Marlotte, Amboise…), in the summer they often went to the mountains (Pelvoux, Murols, Sallieres-les-bains,…).

Being a bit autistic, they preferred to return to the same places, rather than to explore new ones: Royaumont (6 times), Pelvoux (5 times), Celles-sur-plaine (4 times), Marlotte (3 times), Amboise (3 times),…

In the past, we’ve tried to pinpoint the exact locations of the pre-WW2 Bourbaki-conferences: in 1935 at le Station Biologique de l’Université Blaise Pascal’, Rue du Lavoir, Besse-et-Saint-Anastaise, in 1936 and 1937 at La Massotterie in Chancay, and in 1938 at l’ecole de Beauvallon (often mistakingly referred to as the ‘Dieulefit-meeting’).

Let’s try to do the same for their conferences in the 1950ties. Making use of the recent La Tribu releases for he period 1953-1960, let’s start arbitrarily with the 1955 fall meeting in Marlotte.

Three conferences were organised in Marlotte during that period:

  • La Tribu 37 : ‘Congres de la lune’, October 23-29 1955
  • La Tribu 43 : ‘Congres de la deuxieme lune’, October 6-11 1957
  • La Tribu 44 : ‘Congres des minutes de silence’, March 16-22 1958

Grothendieck was present at all three meetings, Weil at the last two. But let us return to the fight between these two (‘congres des minutes de silence’) regarding algebraic geometry/category theory in another post.

Today we’ll just focus on the location of these meetings. At first, this looks an easy enough task as on the opening page of La Tribu we read:

“The conference was held at the Hotel de la mare aux canards’ (‘Hotel of the duck pond’) in Marlotte, near Fontainebleau, from October 23rd till 29th, 1955”.

Just one little problem, I can’t find any reference to a ‘Hotel de la Mare aux Canards’ in Marlotte, neither at present nor in the past.

Nowadays, Bourron-Marlotte is mainly a residential village with no great need for lodgings, apart from a few ‘gites’ and a plush hotel in the local ‘chateau’.

At the end of the 19th century though, there was an influx of painters, attracted by the artistic ‘colonie’ in the village, and they needed a place to sleep, and gradually several ‘Auberges’ and Hotels opened their doors.

Over the years, most of these hotels were demolished, or converted to family houses. The best list of former hotels in Marlotte, and their subsequent fate, I could find is L’essor hôtelier de Bourron et de Marlotte.

There’s no mention of any ‘Hotel de la mare aux canards’, but there was a ‘Hotel de la mare aux fées’ (Hotel of the fairy pond), which sadly was demolished in the 1970ties.

There’s little doubt that this is indeed the location of Bourbaki’s Marlotte-meetings, as the text on page one of La Tribu 37 above continues as (translation by Maurice Mashaal in ‘Bourbaki a secret society of mathematicians’, page 109):

“Modest and subdued sunlight, lustrous bronze leaves fluttering in the wind, a pond without fairies, modules without end, indigestible stones, and pierced barrels: everything contributes to the drowsiness of these blasé believers. ‘Yet they are serious’, says the hotel-keeper, ‘I don’t know what they are doing with all those stones, but they’re working hard. Maybe they’re preparing for a journey to the moon’.”

Bourbaki didn’t see any fairies in the pond, only ducks, so for Him it was the Hotel of the duck pond.

In fact La mare aux fées is one of the best known spots in the forest of Fontainebleau, and has been an inspiration for many painters, including Pierre-August Renoir:

Here’s the al fresco restaurant of the Hotel de la mare aux fées:

Both photographs are from the beginning of the 20th century, but also in the 50ties it was a Hotel of some renown as celebreties, including the actor Jean Gabin, stayed there.

The exact location of the former Hotel de la mare aux fées is 83, Rue Murger in Bourron-Marlotte.

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The (somewhat less) Secret Bourbaki Archive

It has been many, many years since I’ve last visited the Bourbaki Archives.

The underground repository of the Bourbaki Secret Archives is a storage facility built beneath the cave of the former Capoulade Cafe. Given its sporadic use by staff and scholars, the entire space – including the Gallery of all intermediate versions of every damned Bourbaki book, the section reserved to Bourbaki’s internal notes, such as his Diktats, and all numbers of La Tribu, and the Miscellania, containing personal notes and other prullaria once belonging to its members – is illuminated by amber lighting activated only when movement is detected by strategically placed sensors, and is guarded by a private security firm, hired by the ACNB.

This description (based on that of the Vatican Secret Archives in the book The Magdalene Reliquary by Gary McAvoy) is far from the actual situation. The Bourbaki Archive has been pieced together from legates donated by some of its former members (including Delsarte, Weil, de Possel, Cartan, Samuel, and others), and consist of well over a hundredth labeled carton and plastic cases, fitting easily in a few standard white Billy Ikea bookcases.

The publicly available Bourbaki Archive is even much smaller. The Association des collaborateurs de Nicolas Bourbaki has strong opinions on which items can be put online. For years the available issues of La Tribu were restricted to those before 1953. I was once told that one of the second generation Bourbaki-members vetoed further releases.

As a result, we only had the fading (and often coloured) memories of Bourbaki-members to rely on if we wanted to reconstruct key events, for example, Bourbaki’s reluctance to include category theory in its works. Rather than to work on source material, we had to content ourselves with interviews, such as this one, the relevant part starts at 51.40 into the clip. See here for some other interesting time-slots.

On a recent visit to the Bourbaki Archives I was happy to see that all volumes of “La Tribu” (the internal newsletter of Bourbaki) are now online from 1940 until 1960.

Okay, it’s not the entire story yet but, for all you Grothendieck aficionados out there, it should be enough as G resigned from Bourbaki in 1960 with this letter (see here for a translation).

Grothendieck was present at just twelve Bourbaki congresses in the period between 1955 and 1960 (he was also present as a ‘cobaye’ at a 1951 congress in Nancy).

The period 1955-60 was crucial in the modern development of algebraic geometry. Serre’s ‘FAC’ was published, as was Grothendieck’s ‘Tohoku-paper’, there was the influential Chevalley seminar, and the internal Bourbaki-fight about categories and the functorial view.

Perhaps the definite paper on the later issue is Ralf Kromer’s La ‘Machine de Grothendieck’ se fonde-t-elle seulement sur les vocables metamathematiques? Bourbaki et les categories au cours des annees cinquante.

Kromer had access to most issues of La Tribu until 1962 (from the Delsarte archive in Nancy), but still felt the need to justify his use of these sources to the ACNB (footnote 9 of his paper):

“L’autorisation que j’ai obtenue par le Comité scientifique des Archives de la création des mathématiques, unité du CNRS qui fut chargée jusqu’en 2003 de la mise à disposition de ces archives, me donne également le droit d’utiliser les sources datant des années postérieures à l’année 1953, que j’avais consultées auparavant aux Archives Jean Delsarte, soit avant que l’ACNB (Association des Collaborateurs de Nicolas Bourbaki) ne rende publique sa décision d’ouvrir ses archives et ne décide des parties qui seraient consultables.

J’ai ainsi bénéficié d’une occasion qui ne se présenterait sans doute plus aujourd’hui, mais c’est en toute légitimité que je puis m’appuyer sur cette riche documentation. Toutefois, la collection des Archives Jean Delsarte étant à son tour limitée aux années antérieures à 1963, je n’ai pu étudier la discussion ultérieure.”

The Association des Collaborateurs de Nicolas Bourbaki made retirement from active B-membership mandatory at the age of 50. One might expect of it to open up all documents in its archives which are older than fifty years.

Meanwhile, we’ll have a go at the 1940-1960 issues of La Tribu.

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Bourbaki and Grothendieck-Serre

This time of year I’m usually in France, or at least I was before Covid. This might explain for my recent obsession with French math YouTube interviews.

Today’s first one is about Bourbaki’s golden years, the period between WW2 and 1975. Alain Connes is trying to get some anecdotes from Jean-Pierre Serre, Pierre Cartier, and Jacques Dixmier.

If you don’t have the time to sit through the whole thing, perhaps you might have a look at the discussion on whether or not to include categories in Bourbaki (starting at 51.40 into the clip).

Here are some other time-slots (typed on a qwerty keyboard, mes excuses) with some links.

  • 8.59 : Canular stupide (mort de Bourbaki)
  • 15.45 : recrutement de Koszul
  • 17.45 : recrutement de Grothendieck
  • 26.15 : influence de Serre
  • 28.05 : importance des ultra filtres
  • 35.35 : Meyer
  • 37.20 : faisceaux
  • 51.00 : Grothendieck
  • 51.40 : des categories, Gabriel-Demazure
  • 57.50 : lemme de Serre, theoreme de Weil
  • 1.03.20 : Chevalley vs. Godement
  • 1.05.26 : retraite Dieudonne
  • 1.07.05 : retraite
  • 1.10.00 : Weil vs. Serre-Borel
  • 1.13.50 : hierarchie Bourbaki
  • 1.20.22 : categories
  • 1.21.30 : Bourbaki, une secte?
  • 1.22.15 : Grothendieck C.N.R.S. 1984

The second one is an interview conducted by Alain Connes with Jean-Pierre Serre on the Grothendieck-Serre correspondence.

Again, if you don’t have the energy to sit through it all, perhaps I can tempt you with Serre’s reaction to Connes bringing up the subject of toposes (starting at 14.36 into the clip).

  • 2.10 : 2e these de Grothendieck: des faisceaux
  • 3.50 : Grothendieck -> Bourbaki
  • 6.46 : Tohoku
  • 8.00 : categorie des diagrammes
  • 9.10 : schemas et Krull
  • 10.50 : motifs
  • 11.50 : cohomologie etale
  • 14.05 : Weil
  • 14.36 : topos
  • 16.30 : Langlands
  • 19.40 : Grothendieck, cours d’ecologie
  • 24.20 : Dwork
  • 25.45 : Riemann-Roch
  • 29.30 : influence de Serre
  • 30.50 : fin de correspondence
  • 32.05 : pourquoi?
  • 33.10 : SGA 5
  • 34.50 : methode G. vs. theorie des nombres
  • 37.00 : paranoia
  • 37.15 : Grothendieck = centrale nucleaire
  • 38.30 : Clef des songes
  • 42.35 : 30.000 pages, probleme du mal
  • 44.25 : Ribenboim
  • 45.20 : Grothendieck a Paris, publication R et S
  • 48.00 : 50 ans IHES, lettre a Bourguignon
  • 50.46 : Laurant Lafforgue
  • 51.35 : Lasserre
  • 53.10 : l’humour
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Princeton’s own Bourbaki

In the first half of 1937, Andre Weil visited Princeton and introduced some of the postdocs present (notably Ralph Boas, John Tukey, and Frank Smithies) to Poldavian lore and Bourbaki’s early work.

In 1935, Bourbaki succeeded (via father Cartan) to get his paper “Sur un théorème de Carathéodory et la mesure dans les espaces topologiques” published in the Comptes Rendus des Séances Hebdomadaires de l’Académie des Sciences.

Inspired by this, the Princeton gang decided to try to get a compilation of their mathematical ways to catch a lion in the American Mathematical Monthly, under the pseudonym H. Petard, and accompanied by a cover letter signed by another pseudonym, E. S. Pondiczery.

By the time the paper “A contribution to the mathematical theory of big game hunting” appeared, Boas and Smithies were in cambridge pursuing their postdoc work, and Boas reported back to Tukey: “Pétard’s paper is attracting attention here,” generating “subdued chuckles … in the Philosophical Library.”

On the left, Ralph Boas in ‘official’ Pondiczery outfit – Photo Credit.

The acknowledgment of the paper is in true Bourbaki-canular style.

The author desires to acknowledge his indebtedness to the Trivial Club of St. John’s College, Cambridge, England; to the M.I.T. chapter of the Society for Useless Research; to the F. o. P., of Princeton University; and to numerous individual contributors, known and unknown, conscious and unconscious.

The Trivial Club of St. John’s College probably refers to the Adams Society, the St. John’s College mathematics society. Frank Smithies graduated from St. John’s in 1933, and began research on integral equations with Hardy. After his Ph. D., and on a Carnegie Fellowship and a St John’s College studentship, Smithies then spent two years at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, before returning back ‘home’.

In the previous post, I assumed that Weil’s visit to Cambridge was linked to Trinity College. This should probably have been St. John’s College, his contact there being (apart from Smithies) Max Newman, a fellow of St. John’s. There are two letters from Weil (summer 1939, and summer 1940) in the Max Newman digital library.

The Eagle Scanning Project is the online digital archive of The Eagle, the Journal of St. John’s College. Last time I wanted to find out what was going on, mathematically, in Cambridge in the spring of 1939. Now I know I just had to peruse the Easter 1939 and Michaelmas 1939 volumes of the Eagle, focussing on the reports of the Adams Society.

In the period Andre Weil was staying in Cambridge, they had a Society Dinner in the Music Room on March 9th, a talk about calculating machines (with demonstration!) on April 27th, and the Annual Business Meeting on May 11th, just two days before their punting trip to Grantchester,

The M.I.T. chapter of the Society for Useless Research is a different matter. The ‘Useless Research’ no doubt refers to Extrasensory Perception, or ESP. Pondiczery’s initials E. S. were chosen with a future pun in mind, as Tukey said in a later interview:

“Well, the hope was that at some point Ersatz Stanislaus Pondiczery at the Royal Institute of Poldavia was going to be able to sign something ESP RIP.”

What was the Princeton connection to ESP research?

Well, Joseph Banks Rhine conducted experiments at Duke University in the early 1930s on ESP using Zener cards. Amongst his test-persons was Hubert Pearce, who scored an overall 40% success rate, whereas chance would have been 20%.

Pearce and Joseph Banks Rhine (1932) – Photo Credit

In 1936, W. S. Cox tried to repeat Rhine’s experiment at Princeton University but failed. Cox concluded “There is no evidence of extrasensory perception either in the ‘average man’ or of the group investigated or in any particular individual of that group. The discrepancy between these results and those obtained by Rhine is due either to uncontrollable factors in experimental procedure or to the difference in the subjects.”

As to the ‘MIT chapter of the society for useless research’, a chapter usually refers to a fraternity at a University, but I couldn’t find a single one on the list of MIT fraternities involved in ESP, now or back in the late 1930s.

However, to my surprise I found that there is a MIT Archive of Useless Research, six boxes full of amazing books, pamphlets and other assorted ‘literature’ compiled between 1900 and 1940.

The Albert G. Ingalls pseudoscience collection (its official name) comprises collections of books and pamphlets assembled by Albert G. Ingalls while associate editor of Scientific American, and given to the MIT Libraries in 1940. Much of the material rejects contemporary theories of physical sciences, particularly theoretical and planetary physics; a smaller portion builds upon contemporary science and explores hypotheses not yet accepted.

I don’t know whether any ESP research is included in the collection, nor whether Boas and Tukey were aware of its existence in 1938, but it sure makes a good story.

The final riddle, the F. o. P., of Princeton University is an easy one. Of course, this refers to the “Friends of Pondiczery”, the circle of people in Princeton who knew of the existence of their very own Bourbaki.

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the Bourbaki code revisited

The fictitious life of Nicolas Bourbaki remains a source of fascination to some.

A few weeks ago, Michael Barany wrote an article for the JStor Daily The mathematical pranksters behind Nicolas Bourbaki.

Here’s one of the iconic early Bourbaki pictures, taken at the Dieulefit-meeting in 1938. More than a decade ago I discovered the exact location of that meeting in the post Bourbaki and the miracle of silence.

Bourbaki at Beauvallon 1938 – Photo Credit

That post was one of a series on the pre-war years of Bourbaki, and the riddles contained in the invitation card of the Betti Bourbaki-Hector Petard wedding that several mathematicians in Cambridge, Princeton and Paris received in the spring of 1939.

A year ago, The Ferret made the nice YouTube clip “Bourbaki – a Tale of Mathematics, Lions and Espionage”, which gives a quick introduction to Bourbaki and the people mentioned in the wedding invitation.

This vacation period may be a good opportunity to revisit some of my older posts on this subject, and add newer material I discovered since then.

For this reason, I’ve added a new category, tBC for ‘the Bourbaki Code’, and added the old posts to it.

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Where’s Bourbaki’s tomb?

In according to Groth IV.22 we tried to solve one of the riddles contained in Roubaud’s announcement of Bourbaki’s death.

Today, we’ll try our hands on the next one: where was Bourbaki buried?

The death announcement gives this fairly opaque clue:

“The burial will take place in the cemetery for Random Functions (metro stations Markov and Gödel) on Saturday, November 23, 1968 at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.”

What happened on November 23rd 1968?

Bourbaki died on November 11th, 1968 (exactly 50 years after the end of WW1). Perhaps an allusion to the mandatory retirement age for members of Bourbaki, as suggested by the Canulars Bourbaki.

Be that as it may, I believe this date was chosen because it is conveniently close to the intended time of the burial.

But then, what’s so special about November 23rd, 1968?

Well, is there a more suitable moment to burry Bourbaki than during a Seminaire Bourbaki? And, yes, in the fall of 1968 the seminar was organised from saturday 23rd till monday 25th of november:

So, where would all of Bourbaki’s close family be at 3 o’clock on that particular saturday? Right, at l’Institut Henri Poincare.

But, it’s hard to view the IHP as a cemetery. Besides, it’s nowhere close to two metro stations as a quick look on the map shows. The closest one is the RER-station at the Luxembourg gardens, but the RER-line didn’t exist in 1968.

(True Parisians may object that the Gare du Luxembourg was at the time the terminus of the Ligne de Sceaux which has a fascinating history, but let’s try to remain on track…)

If the first clue is the Institut Henri Poincare, then if we are looking for a cemetery, we might ask:

Where’s Poincare’s tomb?

Jules Henri Poincare is burried in the family tomb at the Montparnasse cemetery

He’s not the only mathematician buried there. Évariste Galois, Jean Victor Poncelet, Joseph Liouville, Charles Hermite, and Gaston Darboux also found their last resting place in Montparnasse.

In fact, there are at least 104 mathematicians buried at Montparnasse.

This is hardly surprising as the Montparnasse cemetery is close to the IHP, the Collège de France, the Sorbonne, the “rue d’Ulm” aka the ENS, l’Observatoire and until 1976 l’École polytechnique.

Here’s a map with pointers to some of these tombs:

So, the Montparnasse cemetery appears to be a plausible place to host Bourbaki’s tomb.

But, what about the other “clues”?

“Cemetery of random functions (metro stations Markov and Gödel)”

There are several references lo logic, set theory and applied mathematics in Bourbaki’s death announcement. Why?

Roubaud (and many with him) feel that the Bourbaki enterprise failed miserably in these areas.

He writes on page 49 of his book Mathematics, a novel:

“But Bourbaki, that ‘collective mathematician”, as Raymond Queneau put it, also had a good knowledge of the current state of mathematics at the time when his Treatise was being composed; with, of course, a few “gaps”:

for example, probability, which was considered to be just an “applied” brand of measure theory”; and logic, especially logic, which was made almost a pariah because of (so it was rumored) the premature death of Herbrand, who, in the generation of founders, Normaliens to a man, had studied under Hilbert, and thus had been associated with his meteoric rise; in sum, logic had died in a climbing accident along with Herbrand.”

This might explain the cemetery of “random functions” and the metro stations named after the logicians and set theorists Kurt Gödel and A.A. Markov or the father of stochastic processes Andrey Markov.

Is there more into these references?

Probably not, but just to continue with our silly game, the two metro stations closest to the Montparnasse cemetery are Raspail and Edgar Quinet.

Now, François-Vincent Raspail was a French chemist, naturalist, physician, physiologist, attorney, and socialist politician.

More relevant to our quest is that the Centre d’analyse et de mathématique sociales (CAMS) was based at 54, boulevard Raspail. The mission statement on their website tells that this institute is clearly devoted to all applications of mathematics. That is, “Raspail” may be another pointer to applied mathematics and random functions.

As for the other metro station, Edgar Quinet was a French historian and intellectual. Is there a connection to logic or set theory? Well, sort of. The Encyclopedia Britannica has this to say about Edgar Quinet:

“His rhetorical power was altogether superior to his logical power, and the natural consequence is that his work is full of contradictions.”

I rest my case.

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The empty set according to bourbaki

The footnote on page E. II.6 in Bourbaki’s 1970 edition of “Theorie des ensembles” reads

If this is completely obvious to you, stop reading now and start getting a life. For the rest of us, it took me quite some time before i was able to parse this formula, and when i finally did, it only added to my initial confusion.

Though the Bourbakis had a very preliminary version of their set-theory already out in 1939 (Fascicule des Resultats), the version as we know it now was published, chapter-wise, in the fifties: Chapters I and II in 1954, Chapter III in 1956 and finally Chapter IV in 1957.

In the first chapter they develop their version of logic, using ‘assemblages’ (assemblies) which are words of signs and letters, the signs being $\tau, \square, \vee, \neg, =, \in$ and $\supset$.

Of these, we have the familiar signs $\vee$ (or), $\neg$ (not), $=$ (equal to) and $\in$ (element of) and, three more exotic ones: $\tau$ (their symbol for the Hilbert operator $\varepsilon$), $\square$ a sort of wildcard variable bound by an occurrence of $\tau$ (the ‘links’ in the above scan) and $\supset$ for an ordered couple.

The connectives are written in front of the symbols they connect rather than between them, avoiding brackets, so far example $(x \in y) \vee (x=x)$ becomes $\vee \epsilon x y = x x$.

If $R$ is some assembly and $x$ a letter occurring in $R$, then the intende meaning of the *Hilbert-operator* $\tau_x(R)$ is ‘some $x$ for which $R$ is true if such a thing exists’. $\tau_x(R)$ is again an assembly constructed in three steps: (a) form the assembly $\tau R$, (b) link the starting $\tau$ to all occurrences of $x$ in $R$ and (c) replace those occurrences of $x$ by an occurrence of $\square$.

For MathJax reasons we will not try to draw links but rather give a linked $\tau$ and $\square$ the same subscript. So, for example, the claimed assembly for $\emptyset$ above reads

$\tau_y \neg \neg \neg \in \tau_x \neg \neg \in \square_x \square_y \square_y$

If $A$ and $B$ are assemblies and $x$ a letter occurring in $B$ then we denote by $(A | x)B$ the assembly obtained by replacing each occurrence of $x$ in $B$ by the assembly $A$. The upshot of this is that we can now write quantifiers as assemblies:

$(\exists x) R$ is the assembly $(\tau_x(R) | x)R$ and as $(\forall x) R$ is $\neg (\exists x) \neg R$ it becomes $\neg (\tau_x(\neg R) | x) \neg R$

Okay, let’s try to convert Bourbaki’s definition of the emptyset $\emptyset$ as ‘something that contains no element’, or formally $\tau_y((\forall x)(x \notin y))$, into an assembly.

– by definition of $\forall$ it becomes $\tau_y(\neg (\exists x)(\neg (x \notin y)))$
– write $\neg ( x \notin y)$ as the assembly $R= \neg \neg \in x \square_y$
– then by definition of $\exists$ we have to assemble $\tau_y \neg (\tau_x(R) | x) R$
– by construction $\tau_x(R) = \tau_x \neg \neg \in \square_x \square_y$
– using the description of $(A|x)B$ we finally indeed obtain $\tau_y \neg \neg \neg \in \tau_x \neg \neg \in \square_x \square_y \square_y$

But, can someone please explain what’s wrong with $\tau_y \neg \in \tau_x \in \square_x \square_y \square_y$ which is the assembly corresponding to $\tau_y(\neg (\exists x) (x \in y))$ which could equally well have been taken as defining the empty set and has a shorter assembly (length 8 and 3 links, compared to the one given of length 12 with 3 links).

Hair-splitting as this is, it will have dramatic implications when we will try to assemble Bourbaki’s definition of “1” another time.

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