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Tag: topos theory

A newish toy in town

In a recent post I recalled Claude Levy-Strauss’ observation “In Paris, intellectuals need a new toy every 15 years”, and gave a couple of links showing that the most recent IHES-toy has been spreading to other Parisian intellectual circles in recent years.

At the time (late sixties), Levy-Strauss was criticising the ongoing Foucault-hype. It appears that, since then, the frequency of a hype cycle is getting substantially shorter.

Ten days ago, the IHES announced that Dustin Clausen (of condensed math fame) is now joining the IHES as a permanent professor.

To me, this seems like a sensible decision, moving away from (too?) general topos theory towards explicit examples having potential applications to arithmetic geometry.

On the relation between condensed sets and toposes, here’s Dustin Clausen talking about “Toposes generated by compact projectives, and the example of condensed sets”, at the “Toposes online” conference, organised by Alain Connes, Olivia Caramello and Laurent Lafforgue in 2021.

Two days ago, Clausen gave another interesting (inaugural?) talk at the IHES on “A Conjectural Reciprocity Law for Realizations of Motives”.

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Against toposes

The French anthropologist and ethnologist Claude Levi-Strauss once observed

“In Paris, intellectuals need a new toy every 15 years.”

Some pointers to applications of their toy of choice for the past ten years:

How do Parisian mathematicians with a lifelong interest in topos theory react to this hype?

With humour!

Here’s an ‘exposé parodique’ (parodical lecture) by Stéphane Dugowson on “Contre les topos” (against toposes).

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Stella Maris (Cormac McCarthy)

This week, I was hit hard by synchronicity.

Lately, I’ve been reading up a bit on psycho-analysis, tried to get through Grothendieck’s La clef des songes (the key to dreams) and I’m in the process of writing a series of blogposts on how to construct a topos of the unconscious.

And then I read Cormac McCarthy‘s novels The passenger and Stella Maris, and got hit.

Stella Maris is set in 1972, when the math-prodigy Alicia Western, suffering from hallucinations, admits herself to a psychiatric hospital, carrying a plastic bag containing forty thousand dollars. The book consists entirely of dialogues, the transcripts of seven sessions with her psychiatrist Dr. Cohen (nomen est omen).

Alicia is a doctoral candidate at the University Of Chicago who got a scholarship to visit the IHES to work with Grothendieck on toposes.

During the psychiatric sessions, they talk on a wide variety of topics, including the nature of mathematics, quantum mechanics, music theory, dreams, and the unconscious (and its role in doing mathematics).

The core question is not how you do math but how does the unconscious do it. How it is that it’s demonstrably better at it than you are? You work on a problem and then you put it away for a while. But it doesnt go away. It reappears at lunch. Or while you’re taking a shower. It says: Take a look at this. What do you think? Then you wonder why the shower is cold. Or the soup. Is this doing math? I’m afraid it is. How is it doing it? We dont know. How does the unconscious do math? (page 99)

Before going to the IHES she had to send Grothendieck a paper (‘It was an explication of topos theory that I thought he probably hadn’t considered.’ page 136, and ‘while it proved three problems in topos theory it then set about dismantling the mechanism of the proofs.’ page 151). At the IHES ‘I met three men that I could talk to: Grothendieck, Deligne, and Oscar Zariski.’ (page 136).

I don’t know whether Zariski visited the IHES in the early 70ties, and while most historical allusions (to Grothendieck’s life, his role in Bourbaki etc.) are correct, Alicia mentions the ‘Langlands project’ (page 66) which may very well have been the talk of town at the IHES in 1972, but the mention of Witten ‘Grothendieck writes everything down. Witten nothing.’ (page 100) raised an eyebrow.

The book also contains these two nice attempts to capture some of the essence of topos theory:

When you get to topos theory you are at the edge of another universe.
You have found a place to stand where you can look back at the world from nowhere. It’s not just some gestalt. It’s fundamental. (page 13)

You asked me about Grothendieck. The topos theory he came up with is a witches’ brew of topology and algebra and mathematical logic.
It doesnt even have a clear identity. The power of the theory is still speculative. But it’s there.
You have a sense that it is waiting quietly with answers to questions that nobody has asked yet. (page 68)

I did read ‘The passenger’ first, which is probably better as then you’d know already some of the ghosts haunting Alicia, but it’s not a must if you are only interested in their discussions about the nature of mathematics. Be warned that it is a pretty dark book, better not read when you’re already feeling low, and it should come with a link to a suicide prevention line.

Here’s a more considered take on Stella Maris:


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.

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