Grothendieck meets Lacan

Next month, a weekend-meeting is organised in Paris on Lacan et Grothendieck, l’impossible rencontre?.

Photo from Remembering my father, Jacques Lacan

Jacques Lacan was a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist who has been called “the most controversial psycho-analyst since Freud”.

What’s the connection between Lacan and Grothendieck? Here’s Stephane Dugowson‘s take (G-translated):

“As we know, Lacan was passionate about certain mathematics, notably temporal logic and the theory of knots, where he thought he found material for advancing the theory of psychoanalysis. For his part, Grothendieck testifies in his non-strictly mathematical writings to his passion for the psyche, as shown by many pages of his Récoltes et Semailles just published by Gallimard (in January 2022), or even, among the tens of thousands of pages discovered at his death and of which we know almost nothing, the 3700 pages of mathematics grouped under the title ‘Structure of the Psyche’.

One might therefore be surprised that the two geniuses never met. In fact, a lunch did take place in the early 1970s organized by the mathematician and psychoanalyst Daniel Sibony. But a lunch does not necessarily make a meeting, and it seems that this one unfortunately did not happen.”

As it is ‘bon ton’ these days in Parisian circles to utter the word ‘topos’, several titles of the talks given at the meeting contain that word.

There’s Stephane Dugowson‘s talk on “Logique du topos borroméen et autres logiques à trois points”.

Lacan used the Borromean link to illustrate his concepts of the Real, Symbolic, and Imaginary (RSI). For more on this, please read chapter 6 of Lionel Baily’s excellent introduction to Lacan’s work Lacan, A Beginner’s Guide.

The Borromean topos is an example of Dugowson’s toposes associated to his ‘connectivity spaces’. From his paper Définition du topos d’un espace connectif I gather that the objects in the Borromean topos consist of a triple of set-maps from a set $A$ (the global sections) to sets $A_x,A_y$ and $A_z$ (the restrictions to three disconnected ‘opens’).

\xymatrix{& A \ar[rd] \ar[d] \ar[ld] & \\ A_x & A_y & A_z} \]

This seems to be a topos with a Boolean logic, but perhaps there are other 3-point connectivity spaces with a non-Boolean Heyting subobject classifier.

There’s Daniel Sibony‘s talk on “Mathématiques et inconscient”. Sibony is a French mathematician, turned philosopher and psychoanalyst, l’inconscient is an important concept in Lacan’s work.

Here’s a nice conversation between Daniel Sibony and Alain Connes on the notions of ‘time’ and ‘truth’.

In the second part (starting around 57.30) Connes brings up toposes whose underlying logic is much subtler than brute ‘true’ or ‘false’ statements. He discusses the presheaf topos on the additive monoid $\mathbb{N}_+$ which leads to statements which are ‘one step from the truth’, ‘two steps from the truth’ and so on. It is also the example Connes used in his talk Un topo sur les topos.

Alain Connes himself will also give a talk at the meeting, together with Patrick Gauthier-Lafaye, on “Un topos sur l’inconscient”.

It appears that Connes and Gauthier-Lafaye have written a book on the subject, A l’ombre de Grothendieck et de Lacan : un topos sur l’inconscient. Here’s the summary (G-translated):

“The authors present the relevance of the mathematical concept of topos, introduced by A. Grothendieck at the end of the 1950s, in the exploration of the structure of the unconscious.”

The book will be released on May 11th.

Grothendieck stuff

January 13th, Gallimard published Grothendieck’s text Recoltes et Semailles in a fancy box containing two books.

Here’s a G-translation of Gallimard’s blurb:

“Considered the mathematical genius of the second half of the 20th century, Alexandre Grothendieck is the author of Récoltes et semailles, a kind of “monster” of more than a thousand pages, according to his own words. The mythical typescript, which opens with a sharp criticism of the ethics of mathematicians, will take the reader into the intimate territories of a spiritual experience after having initiated him into radical ecology.

In this literary braid, several stories intertwine, “a journey to discover a past; a meditation on existence; a picture of the mores of a milieu and an era (or the picture of the insidious and implacable shift from one era to another…); an investigation (almost police at times, and at others bordering on the swashbuckling novel in the depths of the mathematical megapolis…); a vast mathematical digression (which will sow more than one…); […] a diary ; a psychology of discovery and creation; an indictment (ruthless, as it should be…), even a settling of accounts in “the beautiful mathematical world” (and without giving gifts…)”.”

All literary events, great or small, are cause for the French to fill a radio show.

January 21st, ‘Le grand entretien’ on France Inter invited Cedric Villani and Jean-Pierre Bourguignon to talk about Grothendieck’s influence on mathematics (h/t Isar Stubbe).

The embedded YouTube above starts at 12:06, when Bourguignon describes Grothendieck’s main achievements.

Clearly, he starts off with the notion of schemes which, he says, proved to be decisive in the further development of algebraic geometry. Five years ago, I guess he would have continued mentioning FLT and other striking results, impossible to prove without scheme theory.

Now, he goes on saying that Grothendieck laid the basis of topos theory (“to define it, I would need not one minute and a half but a year and a half”), which is only now showing its first applications.

Grothendieck, Bourguignon goes on, was the first to envision the true potential of this theory, which we should take very seriously according to people like Lafforgue and Connes, and which will have applications in fields far from algebraic geometry.

Topos20 is spreading rapidly among French mathematicians. We’ll have to await further results before Topos20 will become a pandemic.

Another interesting fragment starts at 16:19 and concerns Grothendieck’s gribouillis, the 50.000 pages of scribblings found in Lasserre after his death.

Bourguignon had the opportunity to see them some time ago, and when asked to describe them he tells they are in ‘caisses’ stacked in a ‘libraire’.

Here’s a picture of these crates taken by Leila Schneps in Lasserre around the time of Grothendieck’s funeral.

If you want to know what’s in these notes, and how they ended up at that place in Paris, you might want to read this and that post.

If Bourguignon had to consult these notes at the Librairie Alain Brieux, it seems that there is no progress in the negotiations with Grothendieck’s children to make them public, or at least accessible.

Grothendieck talks

In 2017-18, the seminar Lectures grothendieckiennes took place at the ENS in Paris. Among the speakers were Alain Connes, Pierre Cartier, Laurent Lafforgue and Georges Maltsiniotis.

Olivia Caramello, who also contributed to the seminar, posts on her blog Around Toposes that the proceedings of this lectures series is now available from the SMF.

Olivia’s blogpost links also to the YouTube channel of the seminar. Several of these talks are well worth your time watching.

If you are at all interested in toposes and their history, and if you have 90 minutes to kill, I strongly recommend watching Colin McLarthy’s talk Grothendieck’s 1973 topos lectures:

In 1973, Grothendieck gave three lectures series at the Department of Mathematics of SUNY at Buffalo, the first on ‘Algebraic Geometry’, the second on ‘The Theory of Algebraic Groups’ and the third one on ‘Topos Theory’.

All of these Grothendieck talks were audio(!)-taped by John (Jack) Duskin, who kept and preserved them with the help of William Lawvere. They constitute more than 100 hours of rare recordings of Grothendieck.

This MathOverflow (soft) question links to this page stating:

“The copyright of all these recordings is that of the Department of Mathematics of SUNY at Buffalo to whose representatives, in particular Professors Emeritus Jack DUSKIN and Bill LAWVERE exceptional thanks are due both for the preservation and transmission of this historic archive, the only substantial archive of recordings of courses given by one of the greatest mathematicians of all time, whose work and ideas exercised arguably the most profound influence of any individual figure in shaping the mathematics of the second half od the 20th Century. The material which it is proposed to make available here, with their agreement, will form a mirror site to the principal site entitled “Grothendieck at Buffalo” (url: ).”

Sadly, the URL is still missing.

Fortunately, another answer links to the Grothendieck project Thèmes pour une Harmonie by Mateo Carmona. If you scroll down to the 1973-section, you’ll find there all of the recordings of these three Grothendieck series of talks!

To whet your appetite, here’s the first part of his talk on topos theory on April 4th, 1973:

For all subsequent recordings of his talks in the Topos Theory series on May 11th, May 18th, May 25th, May 30th, June 4th, June 6th, June 20th, June 27th, July 2nd, July 10th, July 11th and July 12th, please consult Mateo’s website (under section 1973).

We sit in our ivory towers and think

I’m on vacation, and re-reading two ‘metabiographies’:

Philippe Douroux : Alexandre Grothendieck : Sur les traces du dernier génie des mathématiques


Siobhan Roberts : Genius At Play: The Curious Mind of John Horton Conway


Siobhan Roberts’ book is absolutely brilliant! I’m reading it for the n-th time, first on Kindle, then hardcopy, and now I’m just flicking through its pages, whenever I want to put a smile on my face.

So, here’s today’s gem of a Conway quote (on page 150):

Pure mathematicians usually don’t found companies and deal with the world in an aggressive way. We sit in our ivory towers and think.

(Conway complains his words were taken out of context, in an article
featuring Stephen Wolfram.)

If only university administrations worldwide would accept the ‘sitting in an ivory tower and think’-bit as the job description, and evaluation criterium, for their pure mathematicians.

Sadly… they prefer managers to thinkers.

This reminds me of another brilliant text, perhaps not receiving the attention it deserves:

Daniel J. Woodhouse : An open letter to the mathematical community.

Woodhouse offers a reaction to the ‘neoliberal upper management and bloated administration’ of universities:

Within the sphere of pure mathematics — the oldest and most successful of humanity’s intellectual endeavors — I believe our best chance at preserving the integrity and dignity of our tradition is to return to our Pythagorean roots. We should become a cult.


Let us seclude ourselves in mountain caves and daub mysterious equations in blood across rock-faces to ward off outsiders. Let us embrace our most impenetrable mathematical texts as sacred and requiring divinely distributed revelation.


I am convinced that the current system has dulled our understanding of the value we offer through our instruction. Modern mathematical techniques are the foundation of modern science, medicine, and technology, and we should be the literal, rather than metaphorical, high priests of this temple. Only by withholding our insights will we be able to reassert the intrinsic worth of our knowledge.

I hope these few paragraphs have wetted your appetite to read the manifesto in full, and then take action!


I’m trying to get into the latest Manin-Marcolli paper Quantum Statistical Mechanics of the Absolute Galois Group on how to create from Grothendieck’s dessins d’enfant a quantum system, generalising the Bost-Connes system to the non-Abelian part of the absolute Galois group $Gal(\overline{\mathbb{Q}}/\mathbb{Q})$.

In doing so they want to extend the action of the multiplicative monoid $\mathbb{N}_{\times}$ by power maps on the roots of unity to the action of a larger monoid on all dessins d’enfants.

Here they use an idea, originally due to Jordan Ellenberg, worked out by Melanie Wood in her paper Belyi-extending maps and the Galois action on dessins d’enfants.

To grasp this, it’s best to remember what dessins have to do with Belyi maps, which are maps defined over $\overline{\mathbb{Q}}$
\pi : \Sigma \rightarrow \mathbb{P}^1 \]
from a Riemann surface $\Sigma$ to the complex projective line (aka the 2-sphere), ramified only in $0,1$ and $\infty$. The dessin determining $\pi$ is the 2-coloured graph on the surface $\Sigma$ with as black vertices the pre-images of $0$, white vertices the pre-images of $1$ and these vertices are joined by the lifts of the closed interval $[0,1]$, so the number of edges is equal to the degree $d$ of the map.

Wood considers a very special subclass of these maps, which she calls Belyi-extender maps, of the form
\gamma : \mathbb{P}^1 \rightarrow \mathbb{P}^1 \]
defined over $\mathbb{Q}$ with the additional property that $\gamma$ maps $\{ 0,1,\infty \}$ into $\{ 0,1,\infty \}$.

The upshot being that post-compositions of Belyi’s with Belyi-extenders $\gamma \circ \pi$ are again Belyi maps, and if two Belyi’s $\pi$ and $\pi’$ lie in the same Galois orbit, then so must all $\gamma \circ \pi$ and $\gamma \circ \pi’$.

The crucial Ellenberg-Wood idea is then to construct “new Galois invariants” of dessins by checking existing and easily computable Galois invariants on the dessins of the Belyi’s $\gamma \circ \pi$.

For this we need to know how to draw the dessin of $\gamma \circ \pi$ on $\Sigma$ if we know the dessins of $\pi$ and of the Belyi-extender $\gamma$. Here’s the procedure

Here, the middle dessin is that of the Belyi-extender $\gamma$ (which in this case is the power map $t \rightarrow t^4$) and the upper graph is the unmarked dessin of $\pi$.

One has to replace each of the black-white edges in the dessin of $\pi$ by the dessin of the expander $\gamma$, but one must be very careful in respecting the orientations on the two dessins. In the upper picture just one edge is replaced and one has to do this for all edges in a compatible manner.

Thus, a Belyi-expander $\gamma$ inflates the dessin $\pi$ with factor the degree of $\gamma$. For this reason i prefer to call them dessinflateurs, a contraction of dessin+inflator.

In her paper, Melanie Wood says she can separate dessins for which all known Galois invariants were the same, such as these two dessins,

by inflating them with a suitable Belyi-extender and computing the monodromy group of the inflated dessin.

This monodromy group is the permutation group generated by two elements, the first one gives the permutation on the edges given by walking counter-clockwise around all black vertices, the second by walking around all white vertices.

For example, by labelling the edges of $\Delta$, its monodromy is generated by the permutations $(2,3,5,4)(1,6)(8,10,9)$ and $(1,3,2)(4,7,5,8)(9,10)$ and GAP tells us that the order of this group is $1814400$. For $\Omega$ the generating permutations are $(1,2)(3,6,4,7)(8,9,10)$ and $(1,2,4,3)(5,6)(7,9,8)$, giving an isomorphic group.

Let’s inflate these dessins using the Belyi-extender $\gamma(t) = -\frac{27}{4}(t^3-t^2)$ with corresponding dessin

It took me a couple of attempts before I got the inflated dessins correct (as i knew from Wood that this simple extender would not separate the dessins). Inflated $\Omega$ on top:

Both dessins give a monodromy group of order $35838544379904000000$.

Now we’re ready to do serious work.

Melanie Wood uses in her paper the extender $\zeta(t)=\frac{27 t^2(t-1)^2}{4(t^2-t+1)^3}$ with associated dessin

and says she can now separate the inflated dessins by the order of their monodromy groups. She gets for the inflated $\Delta$ the order $19752284160000$ and for inflated $\Omega$ the order $214066877211724763979841536000000000000$.

It’s very easy to make mistakes in these computations, so probably I did something horribly wrong but I get for both $\Delta$ and $\Omega$ that the order of the monodromy group of the inflated dessin is $214066877211724763979841536000000000000$.

I’d be very happy when someone would be able to spot the error!