Alexander Grothendieck passes away at 86 — one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century

Alexander Grothendieck died November 13 2014 at the age of 86. His extraordinary mathematical vision, which brought an entirely new viewpoint to algebraic geometry in the 20th century, remains a fertile source of inspiration today. He was a highly original thinker whose later non-mathematical writings exhibit radical and penetrating insights about life and spirituality. Born in Berlin in 1928, he endured dislocation and trauma during World War II, including the death of his father in Auschwitz. After the end of the war he made his way to Paris and there discovered others who shared his passion for mathematics. He earned his PhD at the Université de Nancy in 1953 and in 1958 was appointed professor at the newly created Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques just outside Paris. There he spent his most fruitful mathematical years, becoming the epicenter of a revolution that attracted leading mathematicians of the day and many of the most outstanding students. He was awarded the Fields Medal in 1966 and was also for a time a member of the Bourbaki group. In 1970 he abruptly left the IHÉS and began to work on issues of ecology and anti-militarization. Grothendieck joined the faculty at the University of Montpellier in 1972 and retired in 1990. Not long thereafter he essentially became a hermit, living in the French Pyrenees, where he devoted himself to thinking and writing.

Winfried Scharlau has written a 2-part biography of Grothendieck, in German. The first volume has been translated into English, and a translation of the second is under way. See this web page for more information. Alexandre Grothendieck: A Mathematical Portrait, containing pieces by various contributors and edited by Leila Schneps, appeared this year.

Scharlau’s article “Who is Alexander Grothendieck?” appeared in the AMS Notices (September 2008). Also in the Notices: “Comme Appelé du Néant: As If Summoned From the Void,” by Allyn Jackson, part 1 and part 2, which appeared in 2004; and “Reminiscences of Grothendieck and His School,” by Luc Illusie, with Alexander Beilinson, Spencer Bloch, Vladimir Drinfeld, et al.

From Grothendieck’s monumental work, Récoltes et Semailles (English translation follows):

Et toute science, quand nous l’entendons non comme un instrument de pouvoir et de domination, mais comme aventure de connaissance de notre espèce à travers les âges, n’est autre chose que cette harmonie, plus ou moins vaste et plus ou moins riche d’une époque à l’autre, qui se déploie au cours des générations et des siècles, par le délicat contrepoint de tous les thèmes apparus tour à tour, comme appelés du néant.

And every science, when we understand it not as an instrument of power and domination but as an adventure in knowledge pursued by our species across the ages, is nothing but this harmony, more or less vast, more or less rich from one epoch to another, which unfurls over the course of generations and centuries, by the delicate counterpoint of all the themes appearing in turn, as if summoned from the void.

– See more at:

(the above article is from the american mathematical society website)


Nalin Pithwa

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