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 2

Previous post: Where one can find an autobiography of Alexander Grothendieck? Part 1.

A few years ago Grothendieck himself complicated the matter a lot. Note that this happened decades after his texts were rejected by all publishers.

Grothendieck contacted one or two of his former students and demanded that his works published without his authorization were removed from circulation, including libraries. At the time an extensive work, devoted to typesetting in TeX and simultaneously correcting misprints and minor mistakes, and clarifying his works when possible, was underway. Most of the Grothendieck's works were not written by him, and were published either as joint papers with J. Dieudonne (who wrote them all, but is listed as the second author contrary to the mathematical habit to list authors in the alphabetical order), or as notes of the "Séminaire de Géométrie Algébrique du Bois Marie" by Grothendieck and many of his pupils. As all such seminar notes, they are far from being perfect, and they not only deserve to be carefully rewritten, they need to be rewritten. After Grothendieck’s request, this work was almost completely halted, and the rewritten, but not yet published parts were taken down from the web. The already published part of the work was clearly subjected to Grothendieck request, but nothing was done about this. It seems that at least some of the still available paper publications were soon sold out, but some other are still available. (My presentation of this story posted few hours ago wasn't quite correct; the above is the corrected version.)

Note that Grothendieck had both moral and legal rights to demand this at least with respect with the notes of the "Séminaire de Géométrie Algébrique du Bois Marie", his most important mathematical texts. His moral rights as an author are obvious. In addition, he was the copyright holder. Originally, almost all these texts were published by Springer, and the copyright, as usual, belonged to Springer. But at the end of the 1980-ies Springer returned the copyright to Grothendieck. So, legally, nobody can do anything with these texts without Grothendieck’s permission.

The people involved esteemed Grothendieck too much to openly go against his will. Presumably, some people continued to rewriting, but without posting their text on the web (and, of course, without publishing them in the conventional sense).

The situation with his autobiography is much simpler. While it is possible to argue that his discoveries do not belong to him - they belong to humanity, this is not the case with his autobiographical texts. They are like personal letters. They were never published. So, both the moral and the legal rights belonged to Grothendieck. Given the fact that people were very reluctant to do anything against his desire with his mathematical texts, they are even more careful with his personal texts.

Now, after Grothendieck passed away, both the moral and legal rights belongs to his surviving relatives. While the New York Times wrote that he has no known survivors, this seems to be incorrect, and his surviving relatives have no objection against circulation of at least his mathematical texts. Probably, the project of rewriting of the notes of the "Séminaire de Géométrie Algébrique du Bois Marie" will resume. Of course, the original notes are available in many copies.

It is less clear what will happen with his autobiography. Of course, there were many copies in circulation, and I doubt that everyone in possesion of such a copy, be it paper or electronic, destroyed it. If you are lucky, you may come across such a person or even find something on the web. I would very much appreciate any references.

In 1990-ies a Russian translation of the first two parts of Grothendieck's autobiography was published in a completely regular manner. If you read Russian, you should be able to easily find copies on the web. The Russian title is "Урожаи и посевы".

Note that most of mathematical text by Grothendieck and all non-mathematical are in French. While this seems to be a hardly serious obstruction in the case of mathematical papers, his autobiography is written in a rather poetic and sophisticated French. At least one person started to translate it in English, but this is a time consuming task, and he needs to earn a living. He needs funds. Probably, he needs also assurance that his work will be published in some way: will be made easily accessible.

At the same time, even a biography of Grothendieck, partially written by a well known and respected German mathematician W. Scharlau, turned out to be unpublishable in a regular way. The already completed parts are more or less self-published, and there is a need to fund an English translation. See Translation of Grothendieck Biography. The translation of the first part is available at Amazon as a book on demand: Winfried Scharlau, Who Is Alexander Grothendieck? Part 1: Anarchy. The German original of the 3rd part is also available on Amazon as a book on demand: Winfried Scharlau, Wer Ist Alexander Grothendieck? Anarchie, Mathematik, Spiritualit T, Einsamkeit Eine Biographie Teil 3 (German Edition).

Next post: Mathematicians are human and want to be famous.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Unknown: I am sorry, but I believe that it is up to the poster to decide which documents posted by her/him on the web are accessible and which are not. Therefore, I cannot serve as a distributor of means to get to the documents which are not public, even if they were public in the past and are likely to be public in the future. I have no other choice but to delete your comment.

  3. Do you know if it is possible to download EGA in English anywhere? I couldn't find. Of course, it is easy to download the book in French but for me it makes reading much more complicated. If you have it, could you share, please?

  4. Vlad Nigmatullin: No, because there is no English translation.

    From time to time some people say that they would like to see an English translation.

    The usual reply is: it is not hard at all to learn French at the level required to read mathematics, and especially such a carefully written and well structured text as EGA. My experience confirms this. When I needed to read a mathematical paper in French for the first time, I had no previous exposure to French. I just put on the desk the paper and a dictionary. After just a few pages a learned enough to read the rest without big problems. The paper was over 100 pages long (actually, over 150 pages long as far as I remember - of course, it is easy to find out exact number).

    The second reason for the non-existence of a translation is obvious. Who will translate it? One needs a translator who is an expert in commutative algebra and algebraic geometry. So, one needs either a mathematician working in algebraic geometry, or a graduate student in algebraic geometry. Given that EGA is a very long text, it is hard to expect that a researcher and, especially, a student will put their research aside and devote the required time to the translation.

    Finally, there is a somewhat poetic reason: EGA is better in French. In general, every text is better in the original than in any translation. There are arguments to the effect that sometimes exceptionally good translations are better than originals due to difference between the languages, but this is a fairly controversial position. But in the case of translations of mathematics from French to English, these arguments work in the opposite direction and are much more convincing. French mathematical text are written in French, English mathematical papers are written in a very simplified English.

  5. Thanks. I agree that these arguments are very valid for non-existance of English translation. However it seems a bit strange that Russian translation didn't appear back in 70-80s. There existed well qualified people who translated the texts of Bourbaki, Hartshorne, Zariski (and many others). All these texts were fairly long and technical. And I doubt that the the poetic reason would be considered seriously in USSR that time. Do you have any idea why EGA wasn't translated then despite the importance of the text?

  6. Vlad Nigmatullin: I think that the right question is different. Why so many good books and research papers were translated into Russian during 1960-1990? Most of these translations are very good, and many of them were done by leading mathematicians or at least supervised by leading mathematicians (by the "Title Editors" - the editors, whose name appeared on the title page of a book). This is in a strong contrast with very poor translations from Russian to English by the AMS, which were often done (especially the translations of research articles) by people who were neither native speakers of Russian, nor of English, and often didn't understood the texts they were translating (not being experts in the area).

    Several books related to algebraic geometry were translated by Yu.I. Manin. Would it be reasonable to ask why Manin did not translated 800 or 2000 pages more?

    With exception of the Bourbaki books, the preference was always given to the books which well suited as an introduction to a field, perhaps on a very advanced level. For a mathematician, the books by Bourbaki are independent, and they there translated by different mathematicians. This is not the case with the works of Grothendieck. It seems that the soviet mathematicians just waited when (advanced) textbooks in AG will be written and published. As soon as such books appeared, they were translated into Russian.
    In the meantime both Shafarevich and Manin wrote their own introductions into AG. I think that this was a better way to use the available resources than translating EGA and SGA right away.

  7. It may also be somehow linked to the fact that Grothendieck didn't come to Moscow International Congress of Mathematicians in 60-s protesting against violation of human rights in the USSR.

  8. Vlad Nigmatullin: I think that the interest of the soviet communist party and its state security departments in such matters is very overrated. Who cared about a mathematician working in private institution with just about 5 workers? More over, according to history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Grothendieck.html,

    "Grothendieck was always strongly pacifist in his views and he had campaigned against the military built-up of the 1960s. As a political protest, he refused to travel to Moscow to receive the Fields medal. At the Congress, Léon Motchane, director of IHES, received the Fields Medal on Grothendieck's behalf. Grothendieck made no public statement about the reasons for not going to Moscow but he declared himself a citizen of the world and requested United Nations citizenship. In November and December of 1967 he visited North Vietnam which, at that time, was being bombed by the Americans."

    It doesn't looks like Grothendieck protested violations of human rights in the USSR by not coming to the Moscow Congress. Actually, the violation of human rights by the USSR attracted attention of the western public somewhat later.

    It is hard to imagine that somebody reported to the KGB that some French mathematician did not attended the Congress, said nothing about this, KGB took notice, and directed the soviet publishing houses not to publish any translations of mathematical papers of this guy.

    Note that, for example, I.R. Shafarevich was well known to the KGB for his active role in the dissident movement, signing various letters, writing letters to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, etc. He was not allowed to teach undergraduate students, but he had no problems with publication of his mathematical papers.

  9. Hi, sowa, what do you think about Mochizuki's work?

    1. foliationlamination:

      More or less nothing. My first impression was that the number theory community is at fault: they did not read Mochizuki's paper before he announced the solution of the ABC-conjecture. I thought that they should. Now I am not sure that they should do this even now. It seems that the scope of the Mochizuki's project is too immense. It seems that even the foundations of the set theory should be reworked (this doesn't means that some theorems will turn out to be wrong - but one needs to change the point of view).

      Now, what could be the motivation for a mathematician to put aside her own work and devote few years to Mochizuki's theory? The usual motivation to study some theory is the hope to use it in your own work, or at least to understand something better. It seems that up to now mathematicians did not found anything enticing enough in his theory.