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…

Children have always loved colimits

If Chad Orzel is able to teach quantum theory to his dog, surely it must be possible to explain schemes, stacks, toposes and motives to hipsters?

Perhaps an idea for a series of posts?

It’s early days yet. So far, I’ve only added the tag sga4hipsters (pun intended) and googled around for ‘real-life’ applications of sheaves, cohomology, and worse.

Sooner or later one ends up at David Spivak’s MIT-webpage.

David has written a book “category theory for scientists” and has several papers on applications of category theory to databases.

There’s also this hilarious abstract, reproduced below, of a talk he gave in 2007 at many cheerful facts.

If this guy ever decides to write a novel, I’ll pre-order it on the spot.

Presheaf, the cobbler.
by David Spivak

Children have always loved colimits.

Whether it be sorting their blocks according to color, gluing a pair of googly eyes and a pipe-cleaner onto a piece of yellow construction paper, or simply eating a peanut butter sandwich, colimits play a huge role in their lives.

But what happens when their category doesn’t have enough colimits?

In today’s ”ownership” society, what usually happens is that the parents upgrade their child’s category to a Presheaf category. Then the child can cobble together crazy constructions to his heart’s content.

Sometimes, a kid comes up to you with an FM radio she built out of tinkertoys, and says
”look what I made! I call it ’182 transisters, 11 diodes, 6 plastic walls, 3 knobs,…’”

They seem to go on about the damn thing forever.

Luckily, Grothendieck put a stop to this madness.

He used to say to them, ever so gently, ”I’m sorry, kid. I’m really proud of you for making this ’182 transistors’ thing, but I’m afraid it already has a name. It’s called a radio.”

[quote name=”David Spivak]
And thus Grothendieck apologies were born.

Two years later, Grothendieck topologies were born of the same concept.
[/quote]

“In this talk, I will teach you to build a radio (that really works!) using only a category of presheaves, and then I will tell you about the patent-police, known as Grothendieck topologies.

God willing, I will get through SGA 4 and Lurie’s book on Higher Topos Theory.”

Further reading:

David Spivak’s book (old version, but freely available) Category theory for scientists.

The published version, available from Amazon.

Can one explain schemes to hipsters?

Nature (the journal) asked David Mumford and John Tate (of Fields and Abel fame) to write an obituary for Alexander Grothendieck.

Probably, it was their first experience ever to get a paper… rejected!

What was their plan?

How did they carry it out?

What went wrong?

And, can we learn from this?

the plan

Mumford and Tate set themselves an ambitious goal. Although Nature would have been happiest with a purely biographical note, they seized the opportunity to explain three ‘simple’ things to a wider audience: (1) schemes, (2) category theory, and, (3) cohomology…

“Since the readership of Nature were more or less entirely made up of non-mathematicians, it seemed as though our challenge was to try to make some key parts of Grothendieck’s work accessible to such an audience. Obviously the very definition of a scheme is central to nearly all his work, and we also wanted to say something genuine about categories and cohomology.”

1. Schemes

Here, the basic stumbling block, as Mumford acknowledged afterwards, is of course that most people don’t know what a commutative ring is. If you’ve never encountered a scheme before in broad daylight, I’m not certain this paragraph tells you how to recognise one:

“… In simplest terms, he proposed attaching to any commutative ring (any set of things for which addition, subtraction and a commutative multiplication are defined, like the set of integers, or the set of polynomials in variables x,y,z with complex number coefficients) a geometric object, called the Spec of the ring (short for spectrum) or an affine scheme, and patching or gluing together these objects to form the scheme. …”

2. Categories

Here they do a pretty good job, I think. They want to explain Grothendieck’s ‘functor of points’ and the analogy they used with several measuring experiments is neat:

“… Grothendieck used the web of associated maps — called morphisms — from a variable scheme to a fixed one to describe schemes as functors and noted that many functors that were not obviously schemes at all arose in algebraic geometry.

This is similar in science to having many experiments measuring some object from which the unknown real thing is pieced together or even finding something unexpected from its influence on known things….”

3. Cohomology

Here, Mumford “hoped that the inclusion of the unit 3-sphere in $\mathbb{C}^2- \{ (0,0) \}$ would be fairly clear to most scientists and so could be used to explain the Mike Artin’s breakthrough that $H^3_{et}(\mathbb{A}^2 – \{ (0,0) \}) \not= 0$.”

I’d love to know the fractional odds an experienced bookmaker would set in case someone (not me!) wants to bet on them successfully getting this message across.

“… Using complex coordinates (z,w), a plane has four real dimensions and taking out a point, what’s left is topologically a three dimensional sphere. Following the inspired suggestions of Grothendieck, Artin was able to show how with algebra alone that a suitably defined third cohomology group of this space has one generator, that is the sphere lives algebraically too. Together they developed what is called étale cohomology at a famous IHES seminar. …”

the aftermath

The good news is that Nature will still publish the Tate-Mumford obit, is some form or another, next week, on januari 15th. According to Mumford they managed to sneak in three examples of commutative rings in passing: polynomials, dual numbers and finite fields.

what went wrong?

The usual?

We mathematicians are obsessed with getting definitions right. We truly believe that no-one can begin to understand the implications of an idea if we don’t teach them the nitty gritty details of our treasured definitions first.

It appears that we are alone on this.

Did physicists smack us in the face with the full standard-model Lagrangian, demanding us to digest the minute details of it first, before they could tell us they had discovered the Higgs boson?

No, most scientists know how to get a message across. You need 3 things:

– a catchy name (the ‘God Particle’)

– good graphics (machines at CERN, collision pictures)

– a killer analogy (the most popular, in relation to the Higgs particle, seems to be “like Maggie Tatcher walking into a room”…)

can we learn from this?

Of course we can.

And frankly, I’m somewhat surprised Mumford missed this chance.

After all, he dreamed up the graphics and the killer analogy

Further reading

– Mumford’s original rant : Can one explain schemes to biologists?

– John Baez’ follow-up post : Can one explain schemes to biologists?