Archangel Gabriel will make you a topos

No kidding, this is the final sentence of Le spectre d’Atacama, the second novel by Alain Connes (written with Danye Chéreau (IRL Mrs. AC) and his former Ph.D. advisor Jacques Dixmier).

The book has a promising start. Armand Lafforet (IRL AC) is summoned by his friend Rodrigo to the Chilean observatory Alma in the Altacama desert. They have observed a mysterious spectrum, and need his advice.

Armand drops everything and on the flight he lectures the lady sitting next to him on proofs by induction (breaking up chocolate bars), and recalls a recent stay at the La Trappe Abbey, where he had an encounter with (the ghost of) Alexander Grothendieck, who urged him to ‘Follow the motif!’.

“Comment était-il arrivé là? Il possédait surement quelques clés. Pourquoi pas celles des songes?” (How did he get
there? Surely he owned some keys, why not those of our dreams?)

A few pages further there’s this on the notion of topos (my attempt to translate):

“The notion of space plays a central role in mathematics. Traditionally we represent it as a set of points, together with a notion of neighborhood that we call a ‘topology’. The universe of these new spaces, ‘toposes’, unveiled by Grothendieck, is marvellous, not only for the infinite wealth of examples (it contains, apart from the ordinary topological spaces, also numerous instances of a more combinatorial nature) but because of the totally original way to perceive space: instead of appearing on the main stage from the start, it hides backstage and manifests itself as a ‘deus ex machina’, introducing a variability in the theory of sets.”

So far, so good.

We have a mystery, tidbits of mathematics, and allusions left there to put a smile on any Grothendieck-aficionado’s face.

But then, upon arrival, the story drops dead.

Rodrigo has been taken to hospital, and will remain incommunicado until well in the final quarter of the book.

As the remaining astronomers show little interest in Alain’s (sorry, Armand’s) first lecture, he decides to skip the second, and departs on a hike to the ocean. There, he takes a genuine sailing ship in true Jules Verne style to the lighthouse at he end of the world.

All this drags on for at least half a year in time, and two thirds of the book’s length. We are left in complete suspense when it comes to the mysterious Atacama spectrum.

Perhaps the three authors deliberately want to break with existing conventions of story telling?

I had a similar feeling when reading their first novel Le Theatre Quantique. Here they spend some effort to flesh out their heroine, Charlotte, in the first part of the book. But then, all of a sudden, their main character is replaced by a detective, and next by a computer.

Anyway, when Armand finally reappears at the IHES the story picks up pace.

The trio (Armand, his would-be-lover Charlotte, and Ali Ravi, Cern’s computer guru) convince CERN to sell its main computer to an American billionaire with the (fake) promise of developing a quantum computer. Incidentally, they somehow manage to do this using Charlotte’s history with that computer (for this, you have to read ‘Le Theatre Quantique’).

By their quantum-computing power (Shor and quantum-encryption pass the revue) they are able to decipher the Atacame spectrum (something to do with primes and zeroes of the zeta function), send coded messages using quantum entanglement, end up in the Oval Office and convince the president to send a message to the ‘Riemann sphere’ (another fun pun), and so on, and on.

The book ends with a twist of the classic tale of the mathematician willing to sell his soul to the devil for a (dis)proof of the Riemann hypothesis:

After spending some time in purgatory, the mathematician gets a meeting with God and asks her the question “Is the Riemann hypothesis true?”.

“Of course”, God says.

“But how can you know that all non-trivial zeroes of the zeta function have real part 1/2?”, Armand asks.

And God replies:

“Simple enough, I can see them all at once. But then, don’t forget I’m God. I can see the disappointment in your face, yes I can read in your heart that you are frustrated, that you desire an explanation…

Well, we’re going to fix this. I will call archangel Gabriel, the angel of geometry, he will make you a topos!”

If you feel like running to the nearest Kindle store to buy “Le spectre d’Atacama”, make sure to opt for a package deal. It is impossible to make heads or tails of the story without reading “Le theatre quantique” first.

But then, there are worse ways to spend an idle week than by binge reading Connes…

Edit (February 28th). A short video of Alain Connes explaining ‘Le spectre d’Atacama’ (in French)

Grothendieck, at the theatre

A few days ago, the theatre production “Rêves et Motifs” (Dreams and Motives) was put on stage in Argenteuil by la Compagnie Les Rémouleurs.

The stage director Anne Bitran only discovered Grothendieck’s life by reading the front pages of French newspapers, the day after Grothendieck passed away, in November 2014.

« Rêves et Motifs » is a piece inspired by Récoltes et Semailles.

Anne Bitran: ” In Récoltes et semailles we meet a scientist who has his feet on the ground and shares our curiosity about the world around us, with a strong political engagement. This is what I wanted to share with this piece.”

Some of Grothendieck’s dessins d’enfant make their appearance. Is that one Monsieur Mathieu in the center? And part of the Hexenkuche top left? (no, see Vimeo below)

And, does this looks like the sculpture ‘Grothendieck as Shepherd’ by Nina Douglas?

More information about the production can be found at the Les Remouleurs website (in French).

RÊVES ET MOTIFS from Les Rémouleurs on Vimeo.

In case you are interested, make sure to be in Lunéville, November 29th or 30th.

Grothendieck’s gribouillis (3)

As far as I know there are no recent developments in the story of Grothendieck’s Lasserre writings.

Since may 2017 the Mormoiron part of the notes, saved by Jean Malgoire, are scanned and made available at the Archives Grothendieck.

Some of Grothendieck’s children were present at the opening ceremony, and an interview was made with Alexandre jr. :

Rather than going into Grothendieck’s mathematics, he speaks highly of his father’s role in the ecological (Survivre et vivre) and anti-nuclear movements of the early 70ties.

The full story of Survivre et Vivre, and Grothendieck’s part in it, can be read in the thesis by Celine Pessis:

Les années 1968 et la science. Survivre … et Vivre, des mathématiciens critiques à l’origine de l’écologisme

Here’s her talk at the IHES: “L’engagement d’Alexandre Grothendieck durant la première moitié des années 1970”.

Returning to Montpellier’s Archives Grothendieck, Mateo Carmona G started a project to transcribe ‘La Longue Marche à travers la Théorie de Galois’ at GitHub.

From an email: “I am specially interested in Cote n° 149 that seems to contain Grothendieck separate notes on anabelian geometry.”

If you want to read up on the story of Grothendieck’s gribouillis, here are some older posts, in chronological order:

Grothendieck’s gribouillis

Grothendieck’s gribouillis (2)

Where are Grothendieck’s writings?

Where are Grothendieck’s writings (2)?

Grothendieck seminar at the ENS

Next week, the brand new séminaire « Lectures grothendieckiennes » will kick off on Tuesday October 24th at 18hr (h/t Isar Stubbe).

There will be one talk a month, on a tuesday evening from 18hr-20hr. Among the lecturers are the ‘usual suspects’:

Pierre Cartier (October 24th) will discuss the state of functional analysis before Grothendieck entered the scene in 1948 and effectively ‘killed the subject’ (said Dieudonné).

Alain Connes (November 7th) will talk on the origins of Grothendieck’s introduction of toposes.

In fact, toposes will likely be a recurrent topic of the seminar.

Laurant Laforgue‘s title will be ‘La notion de vérité selon Grothendieck'(January 9th) and on March 6th there will be a lecture by Olivia Caramello.

Also, Colin McLarty will speak about them on May 3rd: “Nonetheless one should learn the language of topos: Grothendieck on building houses”.

The closing lecture will be delivered by Georges Maltsiniotis on June 5th 2018.

Further Grothendieck news, there’s the exhibition of a sculpture by Nina Douglas, the wife of Michael Douglas, at the Simons Center for Geometry and Physics (h/t Jason Starr).

It depicts Grothendieck as shepherd. The lambs in front of him have Riemann surfaces inserted into them and on the staff is Grothendieck’s ‘Hexenkuche’ (his proof of the Riemann-Roch theorem).

Grothendieck’s gribouillis (2)

We left the story of Grothendieck’s Lasserre notes early 2015, uncertain whether they would ever be made public.

Some things have happened since.

Georges Maltsiniotis gave a talk at the Gothendieck conference in Montpellier in june 2015 having as title “Grothendieck’s manuscripts in Lasserre”, raising perhaps even more questions.

Philippe Douroux, a journalist at the French newspaper “Liberation”, had a few months ago his book out “Alexandre Grothendieck, sur les traces du dernier genie des mathematiques”. In the first and final couple of chapters he gives details on Grothendieck’s years in Lasserre.

In chapter 46 “Que reste-t-il du tresor de Grothendieck?” (what is left of Grothendieck’s treasure?) he recounts what has happened to the ‘Lasserre gribouillis’ and this allows us to piece together some of the jigsaw-puzzle.

[section_title text=”Maltsiniotis’ talk”]

These days you don’t have to be present at a conference to get the gist of a talk you’re interested in. That is, if at least one of the people present is as helpful as Damien Calaque was in this case. A couple of email exchanges later I was able to get this post out on Google+:

Below is the relevant part of the picture taken by Edouard Balzin, mentioned in the post.

Maltsiniotis blackboard Grothendieck conference

The first three texts are given with plenty of details and add up to say 5000 pages. The fifth text is only given the approximate timing 1993-1998, although they present the bulk of the material (30000 pages).

A few questions come to mind:

– Why didn’t Maltsiniotis give more detail on the largest part of the collection?
– There seem to be at least 15000 pages missing in this roundup (previously, the collection was estimates at about 50000 pages). Were they destroyed?
– What happened to the post-1998 writings? We know from a certain movie that Grothendieck kept on writing until the very end.

[section_title text=”Douroux’ book”]

If you have read Scharlau’s biographical texts on Grothendieck’s life, the middle part of Douroux’ book “Alexandre Grothendieck, sur les traces du dernier genie des mathematiques” will not be too surprising.

However, the first 5 and final 3 chapters contain a lot of unknown information (at least to me) about his life in Lasserre. The story of ‘his last friend Michel’ is particularly relevant.

Michel is a “relieur” (book-binder) and Grothendieck used his services to have carton boxes made, giving precise specifications as to their dimensions in mms, to contain his writings.

In the summer of 2000 there’s a clash between the two, details in chapter 4 “la brouille du relieur”. As a result, all writings from 2000-2014 are not as neatly kept as those before.

Each box is given a number, from 1 to the last one: 41.

In chapter 46 we are told that Georges Maltsiniotis spend two days in Lasserre consulting the content of the first 16 boxes, written between 1992 and 1994. He gives also additional information on the content:

Carton box 1 : “Geometrie elementaire schematique” contains 1100 pages of algebra and algebraic geometry which Maltsiniotis classifies as “assez classique” but which Douroux calls ‘this is solid mathematics on which one has to work hard to understand’ and a bit later (apparently quoting Michel Demasure) ‘we will need 50 years to transform these notes into accessible mathematics’.

Carton boxes 2-4 : “Structure de la psyche” (3700 pages) also being (according to Douroux) ‘a mathematical text in good form’.

Carton boxes 5-16 : Philosophical and mystical reflexions, among which “Psyche et structure” and “Probleme du mal” (7500 pages).

That is, we have an answer to most of the questions raised by Maltsiniotis talk. He only consulted the first 16 boxes, had a quick look at the other boxes and estimated they were ‘more of the same’ and packaged them all together in approximately 30000 pages of ‘Probleme du mal’. Probably he underestimated the number of pages in the 41 boxes containing all writings upto the summer of 2000.

Remains the problem to guess the amount of post 2000 writings. Here’s a picture taken by Leila Schneps days after Grothendieck’s death in Lasserre:

Grothendieck boxes in Lasserre

You will notice the expertly Michel-made carton boxes and a quick count of the middle green and rightmost red metallic box reveals that one could easily pack these 41 carton boxes in 3 metallic cases.

So, a moderate guess on the number of post 2000 pages is : 35000.

Why? Read on.

[section_title text=”what does this have to do with the Paris attacks?”]

Grothendieck boxes in Lasserre

November 13th 2015 is to the French what 9/11 is to Americans (and 22 March 2016 is to Belgians, I’m sad to add).

It is also precisely one year after Grothendieck passed away in Saint-Girons.

On that particular day, the family decided to hand the Grothendieck-collection over to the Bibliotheque Nationale. (G’s last wishes were that everything he ever wrote was to be transferred to the BNF, thereby revoking his infamous letter of 2010, within 7 months after his death, or else had to be destroyed. So, to the letter of his will everything he left should have been destroyed by now. But fortunately none of it is, because 7 months is underestimating the seriousness with which the French ‘notaires’ carry out their trade, I can testify from personal experience).

While the attacks on the Bataclan and elsewhere were going on, a Mercedes break with on board Alexandre Jr. and Jean-Bernard, a librarian specialised in ancient writings, was approaching Paris from Lasserre. On board: 5 metallic cases, 2 red ones, 1 green and 2 blues (so Leila’s picture missed 1 red).

At about 2 into the night they arrived at the ‘commissariat du Police’ of the 6th arrondissement, and delivered the cases. It is said that the cases weighted around 400 kg (that is 80kg/case). As in all things Grothendieck concerned, this seems a bit over-estimated.

Anyway, that’s the last place we know to hold Grothendieck’s Lasserre gribouillis.

There’s this worrying line in Douroux’ book : ‘Who will get hold of them? The BNF? An american university? A math-obsessed billionaire?’

Let’s just hope for the best. That the initial plan to open up the gribouillis to the mathematical community at large will become a reality.

If I counted correctly, there are at least two of these metallic cases full of un-read post 2000 writings. To be continued…