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Tag: Beaulieu

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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Map of the Parisian mathematical scene 1933-39


Michele Audin has written a book on the history of the Julia seminar (hat tip +Chandan Dalawat via Google+).

The “Julia Seminar” was organised between 1933 and 1939, on monday afternoons, in the Darboux lecture hall of the Institut Henri Poincare.

After good German tradition, the talks were followed by tea, “aimablement servi par Mmes Dubreil et Chevalley”.

A perhaps surprising discovery Audin made is that the public was expected to pay an attendance fee of 50 Frs. (approx. 32 Euros, today), per year. Fortunately, this included tea…

The annex of the book contains the lists of all people who have paid their dues, together with their home addresses.

The map above contains most of these people, provided they had a Parisian address. For example, Julia himself lived in Versailles, so is not included.

As are several of the first generation Bourbakis: Dieudonne lived in Rennes, Henri Cartan and Andre Weil in Strasbourg, Delsarte in Nancy, etc.

Still, the lists are a treasure trove of addresses of “les vedettes” (the professors and the people in the Bourbaki-circle) which have green markers on the map, and “les figurants” (often PhD students, or foreign visitors of the IHP), the blue markers.

Several PhD-students gave the Ecole Normale Superieure (btw. note the ‘je suis Charlie’-frontpage of the ENS today jan.9th) in the rue d’Ulm as their address, so after a few of them I gave up adding others.

Further, some people changed houses over this period. I will add these addresses later on.

The southern cluster of markers on Boulevard Jourdan follows from the fact that the university had a number of apartment blocks there for professors and visitors (hat tip Liliane Beaulieu).

A Who’s Who at the Julia seminar can be found in Audin’s book (pages 154-167).


Michele Audin : “Le seminaire de mathematiques 1933-1939, premiere partie: l’histoire”

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the bumpy road to the first Bourbaki congress

The first Bourbaki congress took eventually place in Besse-en-Chandesse. But, its organization suffered from the ‘usual’ inter-departemental fighting, and also from a power-struggle within the group itself. On many issues de Possel and André Weil were on opposite sides, and it didn’t really help that there was a woman involved…

Because Mandelbrojt, de Possel and Coulomb all held a position at the University Blaise Pascal of Clermont-Ferrand I assumed that the Bourbaki-group had no problem procuring the universities’ biology-outpost in Besse-en-Chandesse for their first congress in 1935. However, the relevant Bourbaki files tell a different story. As might have been expected, the project suffered from the ‘usual’ inter-departemental fighting, but also from a power-struggle within the group itself.

An excellent account of the first 10 ‘proto-Bourbaki’ meetings in the Capoulade-Café, 63 boulevard Saint- Michel, is told magnificently by Liliane Beaulieu in her 1993 paper A Parisian Café and Ten Proto-Bourbaki Meetings(1934-1935). Here we will concentrate on the preparations of the Besse congress.

At their very first meeting on december 10th 1934, they already state the importance of the upcoming summer-congress where a precise plan and a distribution of the writing-load for the first volumes will be discussed : “Aux prochaines grandes vacances aura lieu une réunion pléniere d’ou sortira un plan définitif tres précis et une répartition du travail de rédaction des différents fascicules”. The second meeting, on january 14th 1935, decides that the definite list of Bourbaki-members will consist of those (among the nine ‘possibles’ Weil, Delsarte, Mandelbrojt, Cartan, Dubreil, Dieudonné, de Possel, Chevalley and Leroy) present at the congress : “Il est entendu que la liste définitive, extraite de la précédente, sera composée des noms des membres présents a la réunion pléniere d’Aout ou Septembre prochain, réunion dans laquelle sera dressé le plan définitif et précis du traité”.

On march 25th 1935, the first precise plans are made about the location, the lodgings and the extremely important issue of the meals which will be taken in a nearby Hotel of which “la cuisine est, parait-il, fort bonne”.

René de Possel obtained a mandate to do whatever it took for the group to have their congress in Besse between 12 and 25 July, and, to enquire until what date they could still change their mind.
His biography contains the following lines :
“On many issues de Possel and André Weil were on opposite sides in the arguments. At the first Bourbaki congress in July 1935 de Possel was still an active member of the group and much involved with contributing but, largely due to differences with Weil, he dropped out of the project. De Possel married Yvonne Liberati on 12 August 1935; they had three children, Yann, Maya, and Daphné.”

By and large, the Bourbaki-differences between de Possel and Weil were of a professional nature. They had different mathematical interests, different mathematical talents, different ambitions, and, a different level of commitment wrt. the work ahead (Weil being the lazier one of the two). Still, it is difficult to understand the group-dynamics of the first generation Bourbakis without mentioning a personal tragedy, often ‘forgotten’ (as in the above biography) or given no more than half a sentence, in passing…

Aged 24, René de Possel marries Evelyne Gillet in 1929 and their son, Alain, is born on august 16th 1931. However, the marriage breaks up, one account dates the separation in 1933, another around the time of the Besse conference in 1935.

What is certain is that Evelyne Gillet and André Weil start a relationship no later than the autumn of 1935. At that time, Weil is concocting the Bourbaki Comptes-Rendus note and as the Academy demands a short biography of the author, he has to come up with a first name (at the Besse conference, they only decided on the name ‘N. Bourbaki’). Evelyne chooses Nicolas and is referred to ever after as ‘Bourbaki’s godmother’. Early 1936, the couple spends a vacation together in Spain.

Early 1937, the official divorce papers come through, allowing Weil and Evelyne to marry on october 30th 1937. The very same year, René de Possel remarries with Yvonne Liberati. For more information, you can traverse Evelyne’s genealogy-tree here, but bear in mind that not all information is included (for example, Evelyne died on may 24th, 1986).

Contrary to the suggestion made in the biography, there is no evidence that de Possel left the Bourbaki-group as a result of this affaire or because of his arguments with Weil. In fact, at least until the second Chançay-congress in 1937, de Possel was one of the hardest workers in the group, present at all meetings, doing his share of the write-up and even chastising his fellow-Bourbakis for not being as committed to the project as they ought to be, see for example the 7 theses of Chançay document. It was only in the fall of 1941 that de Possel asked to be transferred to the university of Algiers and left the Bourbaki-group.

At the meeting of march 25th 1935, de Possel attempts a coup d’état. He comes up with an entirely new plan for the summer-congress. Paul Valéry, the French poet, essayist, and philosopher (in the notules he is described as ‘le célebre fantaisiste’) proposed the Bourbaki-group to use his ‘centre universitaire mediterranéen’ (the proto-University of Nice) as their place of venue. They could choose any period between july and october and they wouldn’t have to pay a thing! de Possel was in contact with Valéry at that time, he was writing a 44 page booklet on game theory Sur la théorie mathématique des jeux de hasard et de réflexion, with a preface by Paul Valéry, which appeared later in 1937 via Valéry’s center for mediterranean studies.

There is one small catch though … Valéry insists that de Possel should be president of the Bourbaki-group during the meeting! Naturally, this wasn’t received enthusiastically by the others, but they didn’t rule the plan out, requesting additional information and observing that july and august may be way too hot in Nice.

The next meeting (May 6th 1935), de Possel tries to increase the pressure by asserting that the original Besse-plan is in danger because “Les naturalistes de Clermond-Ferrand semblent vouloir se servir de ce qui leur appartient” (the biologists of Clermond-Ferrand want to use their facilities themselves). But the others are not impressed and they give de Possel “pleins pouvoirs pour réagir avec violence.”

A fortnight later, Weil demands to know the latest on the Besse-negotiations and de Possel replies “en principe les biologistes de Clermond-Ferrand pourront y séjourner des le 15 juin, il y a tout lieu de présumer que ces derniers ne seront que trois ou quatre; ils seront donc fort peu génante étant donné le nombre des locaux dont nous pourrons disposer”, that is, there won’t be more than 3 or 4 biologists around, and, there’s plenty of room for everyone!

Putsch averted, the Bourbakis can start packing their suitcases, hire a secretary for the meeting, and split the costs among all committee-members. Because even this circulaire is preserved, we now know such trivia as the cost of full-pension in the Besse-Hotel with the excellent kitchen : 25 Ffr/day…

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