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9 Bourbaki founding members, really?

The Clique (Twenty Øne Piløts fanatic fanbase) is convinced that the nine Bishops of Dema were modelled after the Bourbaki-group.

It is therefore of no surprise to see a Photoshopped version circulating of this classic picture of some youthful Bourbaki-members (note Jean-Pierre Serre poster-boying for Elon Musk’s site),

replacing some of them with much older photos of other members. Crucial seems to be that there are just nine of them.

I don’t know whether the Clique hijacked Bourbaki’s Wikipedia page, or whether they were inspired by its content to select those people, but if you look at that Wikipedia page you’ll see in the right hand column:


  • Henri Cartan
  • Claude Chevalley
  • Jean Coulomb
  • Jean Delsarte
  • Jean Dieudonné
  • Charles Ehresmann
  • René de Possel
  • André Weil

Really? Come on.

We know for a fact that Charles Ehresmann was brought in to replace Jean Leray, and Jean Coulomb to replace Paul Dubreil. Surely, replacements can’t be founders, can they?

Well, unfortunately it is not quite that simple. There’s this silly semantic discussion: from what moment on can you call someone a Bourbaki-member…

The collective name ‘Nicolas Bourbaki’ was adopted only at the Bourbaki-congress in Besse in July 1935 (see also this post).

But, before the Besse-meeting there were ten ‘proto-Bourbaki’ meetings, the first one on December 10th, 1934 in Cafe Capoulade. These meetings have been described masterly by Liliane Beaulieu in A Parisian Cafe and Ten Proto-Bourbaki Meetings (1934-35) (btw. if you know a direct link to the pdf, please drop it in the comments).

During these early meetings, the group called itself ‘The Committee for the Treatise on Analysis’, and not yet Bourbaki, whence the confusion.

Do we take the Capoulade-1934 meeting as the origin of the Bourbaki group (in which case the founding-members would be Cartan, Chevalley, De Possel, Delsarte, Dieudonne, and Weil), or was the Bourbaki-group founded at the Besse-congress in 1935 (when Cartan, Chevalley, Coulomb, De Possel, Dieudonne, Mandelbrojt, and Weil were present)?

Here’s a summary of which people were present at all meetings from December 1934 until the second Chancay-congress in September 1939, taken from Gatien Ricotier ‘Projets collectifs et personnels autour de Bourbaki dans les années 1930 à 1950′:

07-1935 is the Besse-congress, 09-1936 is the ‘Escorial’-congress (or Chancay 1) and 09-1937 is the second Chancay-congress. The ten dates prior to July 1935 are the proto-Bourbaki meetings.

Even though Delsarte was not present at the Besse-1935 congress, and De Possel moved to Algiers and left Bourbaki in 1941, I assume most people would agree that the six people present at the first Capoulade-meeting (Cartan, Chevalley, De Possel, Delsarte, Dieudonne, and Weil) should certainly be counted among the Bourbaki founding members.

What about the others?

We can safely eliminate Dubreil: he was present at just one proto-Bourbaki meeting and left the group in April 1935.

Also Leray’s case is straightforward: he was even excluded from the Besse-meeting as he didn’t contribute much to the group, and later he vehemently opposed Bourbaki, as we’ve seen.

Coulomb’s role seems to restrict to securing a venue for the Besse-meeting as he was ‘physicien-adjoint’ at the ‘Observatoire Physique du Globe du Puy-de-Dome’.

Because of this he could rarely attend the Julia-seminar or Bourbaki-meetings, and his interest in mathematical physics was a bit far from the themes pursued in the seminar or by Bourbaki. It seems he only contributed one small text, in the form of a letter. Due to his limited attendance, even after officially been asked to replace Dubreil, he can hardly be counted as a founding member.

This leaves Szolem Mandelbrojt and Charles Ehresmann.

We’ve already described Mandelbrojt as the odd-man-out among the early Bourbakis. According to the Bourbaki archive he only contributed one text. On the other hand, he also played a role in organising the Besse-meeting and in providing financial support for Bourbaki. Because he was present already early on (from the second proto-Bourbaki meeting) until the Chancay-1937 meeting, some people will count him among the founding members.

Personally I wouldn’t call Charles Ehresmann a Bourbaki founding member because he joined too late in the process (March 1936). Still, purists (those who argue that Bourbaki was founded at Besse) will say that at that meeting he was put forward to replace Jean Leray, and later contributed actively to Bourbaki’s meetings and work, and for that reason should be included among the founding members.

What do you think?

How many Bourbaki founding members are there? Six (the Capoulade-gang), seven (+Mandelbrojt), eight (+Mandelbrojt and Ehresmann), or do you still think there were nine of them?

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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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Bourbaki and the miracle of silence

The last pre-war Bourbaki congress, held in september 1938 in Dieulefit, is surrounded by mystery. Compared to previous meetings, fewer documents are preserved in the Bourbaki archives and some sentences in the surviving notules have been made illegible. We will have to determine the exact location of the Dieulefit-meeting before we can understand why this had to be done. It’s Bourbaki’s own tiny contribution to ‘le miracle de silence’…

First, the few facts we know about this Bourbaki congress, mostly from Andre Weil‘s autobiography ‘The Apprenticeship of a Mathematician’.

The meeting was held in Dieulefit in the Drome-Provencale region, sometime in september 1938 prior to the Munich Agreement (more on this next time). We know that Elie Cartan did accept Bourbaki’s invitation to join them and there is this one famous photograph of the meeting. From left to right : Simone Weil (accompanying Andre), Charles Pison, Andre Weil (hidden), Jean Dieudonne (sitting), Claude Chabauty, Charles Ehresmann, and Jean Delsarte.

Failing further written documentation, ‘all’ we have to do in order to pinpoint the exact location of the meeting is to find a match between this photograph and some building in Dieulefit…

The crucial clue is provided by the couple of sentences, on the final page of the Bourbaki-archive document deldi_001 Engagements de Dieulefit, someone (Jean Delsarte?) has tried to make illegible (probably early on).

Blowing the picture up, it isn’t too hard to guess that the header should read ‘Décision du 22 septembre 1938’ and that the first sentence is ‘Le Bourbaki de 2e classe WEIL fera pour le 15 octobre’. The document is signed

Camp de Beauvallon, le 22.IX.38.
L’adjudant de jour

Now we are getting somewhere. Beauvallon is the name of an hamlet of Dieulefit, situated approximately 2.5km to the east of the center.

Beauvallon is rather famous for its School, founded in 1929 by Marguerite Soubeyran and Catherine Krafft, which was the first ‘modern’ boarding school in France for both boys and girls having behavioral problems. From 1936 on the school’s director was Simone Monnier.

These three women were politically active and frequented several circles. Already in 1938 (at about the time of the Bourbaki congress) they knew the reality of the Nazi persecutions and planned to prepare their school to welcome, care for and protect refugees and Jewish children.

From 1936 on about 20 Spanish republican refugees found a home here and in the ‘pension’ next to the school. When the war started, about 1500 people were hidden from the German occupation in Dieulefit (having a total population of 3500) : Jewish children, intellectuals, artists, trade union leaders, etc. etc. many in the Ecole and the Pension.

Because of the towns solidarity with the refugees, none were betrayed to the Germans, Le miracle de silence à Dieulefit.
It earned the three Ecole-women the title of “Juste” after the war. More on this period can be read here.

But what does this have to do with Bourbaki? Well, we claim that the venue of the 1938 Bourbaki congress was the Ecole de Beauvallon and they probably used Le Pension for their lodgings.

We have photographic evidence comparing the Bourbaki picture with a picture taken in 1943 at the Ecole (the woman in the middle is Marguerite Soubeyran). Compare the distance between door and window, the division of the windows and the ivy on the wall.

Below two photographs of the entire school building : on the left, the school with ‘Le Pension’ next to it around 1938 (the ivy clad wall with the Bourbaki-door is to the right) and on the right, the present Ecole de Beauvallon (this site also contains a lot of historical material). The ivy has gone, but the main features of the building are still intact, only the shape of the small roof above the Bourbaki-door has changed.

During their stay, it is likely the Bourbakis became aware of the plans the school had would war break out. Probably, Jean Delsarte removed all explicit mention to the Ecole de Beauvallon from the archives upon their return. Bourbaki’s own small contribution to Dieulefit’s miracle of silence.

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