On the day before yesterday, while on travel I picked up two books from the Bangalore airport book shop. One was the Helen Keller autobiography “The Story of My Life”. This was perhaps the first full volume autobiography book I had read, when I was a child. I still remember, the used copy of this book being given to me, by a family friend and teacher, when I was in early school. The vivid recollection of Helen Keller learning the alphabets and notably, words like ‘rain’ sill echoes somewhere in the back of my mind. I decided to buy this book, with the plan to gift it to someone, who I come across, preferably young kid in school or so. Eventually, I gifted this to a friend of mine who, when I mentioned about the same, was all excited to grab it. In a way I felt happy because I could instigate interest in some one about Helen Keller. Keller’s life has been a message in itself to humanity. Her strives and constant efforts to learn to react to this world is touching to say the least.
The other book which I have picked along is on the story of “Nicolas Bourbaki”. It is titled “The artist, the mathematician: The story of Nicolas Bourbaki, The genius mathematician who never existed”. It was authored by Amir Aczel, the author of the book on ‘The Fermats Last theorem’. I never heard about this book before, either in reviews or from friends. Well, I must confess that I didnt really search for books or reviews on a topic of this kind, to really hear about such a book. Anyway, the book is a recent print and the news may be just coming out only.
This book turned out to be quite an interesting one. On the flight and while on wait, I could quickly finish reading the book. Being a math and mathematician related book, I didn’t feel sleepy over the book. That helped to complete the reading at a stretch. The book is about Nicolas Bourbaki. Out of my innocence, I never heard about this character before, either. As the title says, there was no specimen of this kind in human form lived upon earth. Yet, there was an identity to this Nicolas Bourbaki. The real truth about this name is revealed a little later in the book. Nicolas Bourbaki was not just one person, but an identity for a collection of mathematicians, mostly French. Together they have published a lot of work in mathematics, under the identity of one name “Nicolas Bourbaki”. How does that sound? Well, it sounds a little weird and a little interesting to me. Can we say, Nicolas Bourbaki was an institution itself? (Well there is a story about Nicolas Bourbaki being applied to get an AMS, American Mathematical Society and gets a reply to pay the institutional pay to get the same. Of course, the AMS president that time, had known the truth about the name Nicolas Bourbaki!)
So, Nicolas Bourbaki represented a group of Mathematicians, post 1935 (between first and second world war period), who formulated a systematic structure to the study of mathematics itself. They have worked predominantly on the Modern mathematics (modern algebraic concepts) including the concept of ‘sets’. As you would expect (because of the time line and French connection), the star mathematician André Weil was one of the founding members of this group. Some of the other well known French (connected) mathematicians also figured in the celebrated group. They iuncluded names like Henri Cartan, Claude Chevalley, Jean Coulomb, Jean Delsarte, Jean Dieudonné, Charles Ehresmann, René de Possel, Szolem Mandelbrojt. Some later entrants to the Bourbaki group had the likes of Laurent Schwartz, Jean-Pierre Serre, Alexander Grothendieck, Samuel Eilenberg, Serge Lang and Roger Godement. The group would meet regularly to discuss and debate on modern mathematical topics and eventually publish under one name Nicolas Bourbaki!
Even though Bourbaki does not exist (at least actively) today, it is believed that this has brought some ‘structure’ in not only mathematics, but in European culture in general. Besides, the stellar contributions on the field of algebra and number theory by this group is acknowledged very well.
Now, another reason, why this book took my interest is because of the presence of the mysterious Alexander Grothendieck. The book talks rather in detail about this mystery man. He was regarded as a genius and had contributed immensely to the world of mathematics. His fields medal in 1966 and related absence from the Moscow event on his own Fields medal confer perhaps tells more volumes about this man. I took by surprise to hear about the current life of this once world star of mathematics. Post 1991 he is believed to be living in a remote jungle/outskirts of Southern France, far from any worldly contacts. I quickly recollected the 2006 Fields medal winner Grigori Perelman, when he declined the medal and began to live away from mathematics crowd. Like Perelman, who (now accepted by everyone) proved the Poincaré Conjecture, Grothendieck as well, produced some monumental contributions. He was considered as a Genius and it was recognized too. But in close resemblance to what Perelman did in 2006, he as well decided to quit mathematics altogether and decided to live a mysterious and aloof life.
What makes, genius folks like Perelman and Grothendieck to abandon themselves from the world? It is surely not fear, simply because they have contributed so much to us and can only be proud of it. What else then? There may be arguments that Grothendieck was disappointed by the fact that, he couldn’t get the results he wanted from his political activities (He had strong political views on certain things against the establishment). Others say that, the childhood miseries and leading an abandoned life early on triggered him to do an isolated life, out of frustration and despair. In Perelman’s case, it is surely a hurt feeling and the one that of ignorance by the mathematical community, for questioning his credentials on the Poincaré conjuncture proof. But can the human mind, which is otherwise so highly brilliant all of a sudden taken aback by a feel of hurt? I feel sorry for these two fine mathematicians, who could have produced much more (They have already done so much, but….) to the world. The life and fate of these two tells the story of the society we all are in, where jealousy, politics, lack of respect to others can completely eradicate a gem, which we should have preserved at all cost.
Tears and anxiety glues through my mind on the current whereabouts of Grothendieck. I hope he lives a happy life around Montpelier! Human mind, man is a highly complex black box. What all it takes and what all it breaks?