About the title

About the title

I changed the title of the blog on March 20, 2013 (it used to have the title “Notes of an owl”). This was my immediate reaction to the news the T. Gowers was presenting to the public the works of P. Deligne on the occasion of the award of the Abel prize to Deligne in 2013 (by his own admission, T. Gowers is not qualified to do this).

The issue at hand is not just the lack of qualification; the real issue is that the award to P. Deligne is, unfortunately, the best compensation to the mathematical community for the 2012 award of Abel prize to Szemerédi. I predicted Deligne before the announcement on these grounds alone. I would prefer if the prize to P. Deligne would be awarded out of pure appreciation of his work.

I believe that mathematicians urgently need to stop the growth of Gowers's influence, and, first of all, his initiatives in mathematical publishing. I wrote extensively about the first one; now there is another: to take over the arXiv overlay electronic journals. The same arguments apply.

Now it looks like this title is very good, contrary to my initial opinion. And there is no way back.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Where one can find an autobiography of Alexander Grothendieck? Part 1

Previous post: Alexandre Grothendieck passed away yesterday, November 13, 2014.

michal2602 asked this question in a comment to the previous post. The short reply would be "I have no idea". This post and the next one are devoted to a long reply.

I don't know, and by good reasons.

First of all, autobiographical and philosophical texts of Grothendieck were never published. They were offered (I am not sure that by Grothendieck himself) to some publishers in France, and everyone rejected the offer. I was told that in his autobiographical texts Grothendieck applied to his colleagues and his own students’ very high moral standards, and points out the violation of these standards. Moreover, sometimes he points out violation of the common standards of scientific ethics or even of the common decency standards. The problem is that he names the violators. And this is something that is quite risky (for the potential publisher) in France (or so I was told).

At the same time the mathematical community does not like such things at all (this is my observation). The mathematical community prefers not to investigate even the cases of nearly oblivious stealing of theorems or ideas (even when an investigation will clear the accused). If your theorem is stolen, you are better off if you do not tell about this in public (unless your proof was literally copy-pasted from your paper to a paper of somebody else).

Apparently, Americans are much more tolerant to the public discussion of any aspect of the life of all sorts of celebrities (the legal term is the “public person”). As is well known, the right to discuss this is codified in the First Amendment to the US Constitution and its Supreme Court interpretations. And why somebody in the US would care about an accusation of a member French Academy? It would be quite natural to translate the Grothendieck’s autobiography in English and to publish it. The American Mathematical Society is the most natural publisher for such a translation. This never happened. The American Mathematical Society considers Grothendieck’s autobiography to be just not interesting enough.

For me, all this is rather depressing. I used to think that the scientific community (including the mathematical one) is open and welcoming controversies. In my opinion, everything written by a mathematician of high enough caliber should be published (may be except wrong proof, but even some wrong proofs deserve to be published). Grothendieck’s caliber is much higher than necessary for this. If such a mathematician holds currently unacceptable opinion, let us argue about it. If she or he misunderstood something, or wasn’t well informed, let us point out at the mistake. But we should not silence people. We don’t have to publish all the rubbish people can produce, but if we deal with a genius, we cannot be certain that we can tell apart the rubbish from that we just don’t understand yet.

Next post: Where one can find an autobiography of Alexander Grothendieck? Part 2.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Grothendieck's attacks on Deligne were incredibly unfair.

    In "Récoltes et Sémailles" he blames his students for abandoning his research program (motives, derived categories, anabelian geometry) while using the heuristics ("yogas") he invented.

    Deligne is seen as the greatest traitor since he used the so called "yoga of motives" to prove the Weil conjectures without mentioning the existence of motives or ever establishing the theory of said motives.

    I find his attacks unconvincing since:

    1. Students are in no way obligated to complete the research program of their teacher
    2. Grothendieck is hypocritical since he never published on motives
    3. Deligne's Weil 2 paper actually proves more than what you can get assuming the standard conjectures ( implying that the motivic point of view may flawed )

  3. Als: I am not going to discuss the content of Grothendieck's autobiographical texts here. From my point of view, it is irrelevant if he is fair or unfair, convincing or unconvincing. As I said in the post, I believe that everything written by a mathematician of his level should be published.

    A publication is not an endorsement of author's position, except, to a moderate extent, publications of research papers. Publication of controversial texts is a norm in all societies which can make a credible claim that they are free societies.

    Unfortunately, the mathematical community over and over demonstrates that it is not free.

    Controversial texts generate discussions. Their authors may convince the public, and then texts will be not controversial anymore. Or public can convincingly refute a controversial text. In order to do this the public needs to achieve a better than before understanding of the issues in question. Hence the public benefits from the publication even in this case.

    If somebody finds that Grothendieck is unconvincing, I am inclined to conclude that she/he simply failed to understand Grothendieck. This does not mean that I will accept as a truth any claim made by Grothendieck. But I am well aware that the chances that I am just not able to see as deeply as he are real.

    Finally, an attempt to refute in 10 lines an unpublished, and therefore never subjected to a public discussion, 1000 pages text has no chances to be convincing. And the very fact that the idea of its publication met so strong resistance, as always, suggest that the author is actually right and correctly describes the events.

  4. Owl, if I read you correctly, it is *French*libel*law* not US or even French mathematics that are u free.

    1. Carl Edman:

      I did not understand the last words of your comment. I don't know the French libel law. I believe that whatever Grothendieck wrote, it can be legally published in the US. May be distributing such a book in France may lead to some legal problems, but the published may simply decide not to distribute it in France.

      I discussed this issue with some people, and nobody ever referred to any legal problem. My impression is that the reason for non-publication is the fact that it may offend some people (but there is no libel). The pretext used to justify the non-publication is that "this not interesting" - which is demonstrably not true.

    2. First, I don't blame you for not understanding that mangled comment. I blame autocorrect on my phone. Months later, I cannot even reconstruct exactly what I meant there.

      Second, I agree with you that G's memoir should be published. Anything written by somebody that great with a level of general interest higher than a shopping list should be published, even if it may turn out to be incorrect.

      Third, putting on my US lawyer hat, I am not sure that there is no legal problem with publication.

      It is true that mere opinion, however disparaging or harmful, cannot be libel. So merely stating that G believed X to be unethical or did not live home to G's high, if idiosyncratic, ethical standards is probably not libelous.

      However, stating that X did so and so and that G considered that unethical may be libelous, if X denies that they did so and so. If X denies having acted in that particular manner, this would be libelous unless the defendant can prove that the factual allegation was true.

      Even merely stating that G--from his long association with X--believed X to be unethical can be libelous for it implies that G was in possession of private, factual information that X had on specific occasions acted in a specific unethical manner. Ordinarily that would lead X to demand that G produce the particular incidents and X have a chance to prove or disprove them. After G's death that become a particularly tricky legal case.

      If X was a public figure, there are additional defenses against libel charges, but "public figures" are mostly politicians and famous celebrities. Very few, if any, living scientists would be regarded as sufficiently famous celebrities to qualify.

      If G's memoirs contain such allegations, there may be nothing to do but wait until all potential Xs have died and then publish, for one cannot libel the dead.

      All of this holds under US libel law which is probably the most liberal (i.e., defendant friendly) in the developed world. Matters may very well be much worse under the laws of Britain or France.

      Fourth, I agree that this is regrettable and none of this renders G's memoirs "uninteresting." The only way to understand such a perplexing claim is to assume that it is a face saving way of saying that one is too afraid of libel suits.

      I hope this comment was more understandable.

    3. Carl Erdman:

      Thanks for all these clarifications.

      I believed that I open your comment long ago. Sorry, my fault. I hope that you subscribed to comments to this post and will read this reply. I would like to ask a couple of legal questions.

      First, I believe that under the USA law, a person recognized as a public figure can prevail in a libel suit only if she or he will be able to prove the malicious intent. Proving that the accusations are wrong would be not sufficient if the accusations resulted from a mistake. Am I right?

      Second, is it correct that under the US law all government officials are considered as public figures? If this is so, does the same principle applies at the level of states also? And how deep down this goes? It would be natural to think that the governor of a state is a public figure, but a merely clerk in a state court is not.

      In the context of the "Grothendieck's memoirs" problem, it is interesting if the officials at *state* universities are considered to be public figures. If this is the case, how deep this classification is going? Definitely, the president of a state university is a public figure, as also the provost. But what about deans of various schools within a state university, and the chairs of various departments?

      From my personal point of view, a state university is a state institution in which the public has a very substantial interest. Its administration should be accountable to the public. I believe that the intent of US libel law is, to a big extent, to make government officials accountable. So, there should be no obstacles to any criticism of a state university administrators, and hence they should be treated as public figures.

    4. Carl Erdman:

      My last question is concerned with a non-existing situation.

      As far as I know, the US National Academy of Sciences is a private entity, although it is affiliated with the federal government in some way.

      Imagine that it is not, i.e. that the National Academy of Sciences is a federal institution. One can easily imagine the situation when the members of the academy are even paid a salary as the federal government officials (such a system existed in the USSR, and, to the best of my knowledge, is still in place in Russia). In such a situation, would be the members of the National Academy considered to be public figures?

      This is remotely relevant to the Grothendieck's case, because, I believe, more or less all people who could be, in principle, offended by his memoirs, are members of the French Academy. More precisely, they are member of L'Institute de France, the French analogues of Academy of Sciences. And I believe that the French Academy is a governmental institution in France.

  5. Thanks for approving the comment! To answer your questions:

    1. Yes, for a public figure to prevail in a libel suit in the U.S., they must prove not only falsity, but also what lawyers call "actual malice." Unfortunately, that is a somewhat misleading term of legal art. In practice, "actual malice" means either (1) that the speaker knew that the statement was false or (2) that the speaker was recklessly indifferent to the falsehood of the statement (e.g., publishing a newspaper article under the headline "Politician XYZ Is a Child Molester" on the basis of nothing more than some anonymous internet comment). In neither case is what a normal person would consider "actual malice" (i.e., ill will towards the libeled party) required; e.g., a mere desire to sell newspapers combined with an indifference to the truth are enough.

    2. No, while under U.S. law most prominent politicians and office holders are "public figures," so are many private people (e.g., famous actors or singers). A public figure is someone who voluntarily trusts themselves into the limelight. Someone who becomes famous by accident, or is not famous at all, is not a public figure. Hence, most government employees are not public figures.

    3. An instructive case is the recent high-profile suit brought against Rolling Stone magazine for a sensational cover story claiming a particularly horrific rape had been committed by a University of Virginia fraternity and covered up by the administration. The story fell apart within a few weeks, as more and more of the details were shown to be provably false and/or extremely implausible, but not before several of the easily identified alleged culprits had been made subject to some, real vicious abuse, harassment, and university discipline.

    The plaintiffs in the Rolling Stone libel case are of course the falsely-alleged rapists. Because the University of Virginia itself is a part of the state of Virginia (that is not so obvious from the name; for example the University of Chicago is a purely private institution, not affiliated with the city in any way), it can never bring a libel suit. However, one of the deans of the University of Virginia who Rolling Stone had claimed covered up the non-existent rape could and did sue Rolling Stone and is unlikely to be found a "public figure" on the basis that she is indirectly a government employee.

    Hope this answers your questions!

  6. Carl Erdman:

    Thanks a lot for such a quick reply! Yes, you did answered my questions almost completely. The Rolling Stone case seems to be really interesting. I hope that the details are easy to find on the web.

    I would like to ask a couple of follow-up questions.

    First, about the Academy of Sciences having a different status. Even with is actual status, the US Academy of Science officially serves as advisor to the US government in the matters of science and scientific policy. Suppose that a member of the Academy, or a group of few members, publicly recommends a particular policy with respect to an issue of much public interest. May be at the request of the federal government, or may by on their own. Will this make them public figures? Would this make them public figures if the Academy of Sciences would be federal agency?

    Well, one can modify question to exclude any assumptions. Is the director of NASA a public figure? What about lower level NASA officials? Is Linda Ham, the chair of the Mission Management Team for what happened to be the last shuttle Columbia mission, a public figure?

    Finally, does this blog make me a public figure? What if I post my real name? Anyhow, it is known to many mathematicians.

  7. Here is a blog post by Prof. Eugene Volokh, one of the country's leading scholars on Free Speech and related issues, discussing the Rolling Stone case: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2015/04/05/libel-law-and-the-rolling-stone-uva-alleged-gang-rape-story-an-update-in-light-of-the-columbia-school-of-journalism-report/

    As for your follow-up questions, let me just note that U.S. libel law recognizes the concept of a limited-purpose public figure, i.e., somebody who can be regarded as a public figure in some context and with regard to speech in that context, but not in another unrelated context.

    But that is as far as I think a competent U.S. lawyer who does not specialize in libel law can go. For the U.S. has at least 51 libel laws (one for each state and one for the federal government), largely similar but often with small but significant differences. Worse, I daresay none of them gives a definition of "public figure" which would allow you to derive with mathematical precision whether X is a public figure for any given X. In borderline cases, the outcome can depend on not only the state, but the judicial circuit, or even the judge one happens to draw and is hence essentially predictable only in a probabilistic sense.

    And speaking of names, my last one does not contain an 'R'. I cannot claim to have added much lustre to it, but others have, so I am rather fond of its exact spelling. :)

  8. Dear Carl Edman,

    Thanks for the reference and explanations. I am sorry for the misprints in your name. That's my typical mistake since the childhood: to see a new word as a whole and mentally rearrange, add, and deleted letters into some simpler for me form. I should be more careful.

    The concept of limited-purpose public figure is interesting and seems to be reasonable. I will look into the Rolling Stone case, but it seems to me that a dean or provost is a public figure in the context of discussion of the university policies and actions, and is not in the context of discussing, say, the fishing habits in Virginia. Or, say, the chief editor of a scientific journal should be a public figure in the context of scientific publishing.

    I am not looking for the "mathematical precision" in legal matters. Frankly, I do not look for it outside of mathematics. I looking for some sort of convincing arguments, not even necessarily rational.