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Mathematics Great Alexander Grothendieck Dies At 86 49

An anonymous reader writes Alexander Grothendieck, one of the great eccentric geniuses of 20th century mathematics, has died in France at the age of 86. Grothendieck was the leading mind behind algebraic geometry. He was awarded the Fields Medal in 1966. He reached the very pinnacle of his profession before abandoning the discipline, taking up anti-war activism, retreating into the life of a recluse and refusing to share his research. He died on Thursday in a hospital in Saint-Girons in southwestern France.
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Mathematics Great Alexander Grothendieck Dies At 86

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  • Genius /Insanity (Score:5, Insightful)

    by sycodon ( 149926 ) on Friday November 14, 2014 @01:11PM (#48386633)

    The line between genius and insanity is a thin one.

    • by i kan reed ( 749298 ) on Friday November 14, 2014 @01:13PM (#48386645) Homepage Journal

      I'm not sure getting fed up with the state of the world and withdrawing from it is insanity, exactly.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Yes it is.... same as Howard Hughes

        • by Okian Warrior ( 537106 ) on Friday November 14, 2014 @02:04PM (#48387059) Homepage Journal

          [It's not insanity... ] Yes it is.... same as Howard Hughes

          I dunno... long-term reading of this blog might result in the impression that life is a disheartening, unjust affair. It's full of rights violations by police and government agencies, feckless and obstructive politicians, corrupt and predatory corporations, and so on.

          To read online news results, everything is lurid and emotional. For example, the nurse in Main [who was in contact with ebola] who didn't agree to a quarrantine was in a "standoff" with authorities, the Philae lander is "racing against time" (whatever *that* means), there's a tiger loose in Disneyland, and we need to be afraid of everything so that the government can justify their purchases and policies.

          Is it that much of a stretch to believe that people will view the world through this skewed perspective?

          Given what we know about human psychology - for example, that people will believe what they're told by default (viz. religion) - it makes perfectly rational sense that a small cadre would lose all hope in humanity and seek to avoid it.

          I don't think these people can be legitimately called insane. They're not hurting anyone, they're not hurting themselves, and they're living their own lives.

          What criteria would you apply to these people to designate them as "insane", and what behaviour would you change about them to fix it? (And how do measure such a change so that you can tell when they're no longer insane?)

          • Being depressed to the point of retreating from the world IS a form of insanity. The world is. You can be unhappy about the way it is or not, sure. But deliberately retreating from it is insane. You are literally crippling yourself, denying the facts of your own existence, ie that you are a human being embedded in the world around you, which includes as much the chair on which you sit and the society in which you live.

            So yeah, deliberate retreat is insane, not quite as insane as suicide, but definitely no

          • by kesuki ( 321456 )

            "What criteria would you apply to these people to designate them as "insane", and what behaviour would you change about them to fix it? (And how do measure such a change so that you can tell when they're no longer insane?)"

            using windows on a network constitutes as crazy. the change is when they realize we need truly free software, the four freedoms. trying to run the world on windows or macos or android all with the corporation as a benevolent dictator is not good enough. slaves to your corporate masters i

      • From Wikipedia:

        His growing preoccupation with spiritual matters was also evident in a letter entitled Lettre de la Bonne Nouvelle that he sent to 250 friends in January 1990. In it, he described his encounters with a deity and announced that a "New Age" would commence on 14 October 1996.

        Yikes. There are still 20,000 pages of unpublished manuscript around, written before the early 1990s. Hopefully most of it was written before these encounters.

        • Crap! (Score:5, Funny)

          by Okian Warrior ( 537106 ) on Friday November 14, 2014 @01:44PM (#48386895) Homepage Journal

          In it, he described his encounters with a deity and announced that a "New Age" would commence on 14 October 1996.

          Crap! He promised he wouldn't tell anyone.

          Oh well, I guess the cat is out of the bag.

          How are people liking the New Age? Any suggestions for improvement?

        • Just because people are crazy in one area of their life, it doesn't mean they can't turn out great work. That's why quite a few geniuses are people whom you probably couldn't stand to be with for very long. As for mathematicians? Newton? Erdos?

          The math (or lack thereof) will speak for itself. If nothing else, it will be another glimpse inside a mind that came up with some of the most groundbreaking mathematical work of the last century.

    • by gtall ( 79522 )

      More like the line between religion and insanity is a thin one.

    • Maybe they're the more sane ones after all.

    • It could have just been a case of extreme burnout. If you look at the stuff he did pre-withdrawal, it was phenomenal. He was doing the work of ten people. And he did a lot of important stuff. He's like the combined Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Eric Clapton of algebra.

      It could have been some form of latent mental illness, but I think people are too quick to judge people smarter than them as being crazy, without solid evidence.

    • (Please read this as something to think about) The human mind is designed for observation and reaction by evolution. Intelligence developed as a means to improve those skills. One might conclude that intelligence is but an attempt to reorient a ones brain into a mostly thinking and forget the rest. That detachment from the more primal function creates a void that we observe as insanity, savant or just non-social. As you get older you might find that you get deep into studies or searching for the meaning of
  • by ralfmuschall ( 1782380 ) on Friday November 14, 2014 @01:20PM (#48386699) Homepage

    The snippet above ("before abandoning the discipline, taking up anti-war activism") sounds as if he had switched from math to politics in 1970. Truth is, he was an anti-war activist all life long, i.e. against France's Algeria war, and he even gave lectures in Vietnam during wartime (1967). Some biographic texts about him are available at [] (AFAICT in german).

  • by kkruecke ( 540019 ) on Friday November 14, 2014 @01:26PM (#48386739)
    According to the wikipedia article [], he did later return to academia until 1988: "He retired from scientific life around 1970, after having discovered the partly military funding of IHÉS. He returned to academia a few years later as a professor at the University of Montpellier, where he stayed until his retirement in 1988. "
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Rest in peace. You hurt my head more than I can describe at times, but thanks.

  • 2 3 Letter acronyms (Score:5, Informative)

    by jbolden ( 176878 ) on Friday November 14, 2014 @01:45PM (#48386921) Homepage

    Well the best way to put it is the man gets 2 3 letter acronyms reserved for him among all mathematicians.
    Éléments de géométrie algébrique (EGA) and Séminaire de géométrie algébrique (SGA).

    Wikipedia has a nice list of other things with his name:
    Ax-Grothendieck theorem
    Birkhoff–Grothendieck theorem
    Brieskorn–Grothendieck resolution
    Grothendieck category
    Grothendieck's connectedness theorem
    Grothendieck connection
    Grothendieck construction
    Grothendieck duality
    Grothendieck existence theorem
    Grothendieck fibration
    Grothendieck's Galois theory
    Grothendieck group
    Grothendieck inequality or Grothendieck constant
    Grothendieck–Katz p-curvature conjecture
    Grothendieck's monodromy theorem
    Grothendieck's mysterious functor
    Grothendieck–Ogg–Shafarevich formula
    Grothendieck period conjecture
    Grothendieck prime
    Grothendieck's relative point of view
    Grothendieck–Riemann–Roch theorem
    Grothendieck's Séminaire de géométrie algébrique
    Grothendieck's six operators
    Grothendieck space
    Grothendieck spectral sequence
    Grothendieck–Teichmüller theory
    Grothendieck trace formula
    Grothendieck topology
    Grothendieck universe
    Tarski–Grothendieck set theory

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      > Grothendieck prime

      You mean 3*19?

      • > Grothendieck prime

        You mean 3*19?

        Yes, but you have to be a mathematician of Grothendieck's calibre to understand that 57 is prime. Lesser intellects fixate on its being the product of 3 and 19 and jabber on about the definition of primeness, but Grothendieck saw the deeper truth.

      • by pjt33 ( 739471 )

        In fairness, I saw Terry Tao get half-way through saying [] that 27 and 29 are twin primes on the Colbert Report the other day, before he caught himself. (Just after the 3 minute mark).

        • We should put you in front of Stephen Colbert and a camera and see how well you do listing twin primes.

      • by jbolden ( 176878 )

        Good catch AC! That was a joke at his expense. He shouldn't be getting the credit as it was a positive thing.

  • by HornWumpus ( 783565 ) on Friday November 14, 2014 @03:07PM (#48387503)

    Recipients immediately start talking out their butt about subjects they have no expertise in. See also: Linus Pauling, Shockley, Chomsky (yes I know, no nobels for some, but you get the point).

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Most academics I know talk out their butt about subjects they have no expertise in. Until they become famous for something, no one listens.

      • Good point.

      • by HuguesT ( 84078 )

        Most *people* do that. If only it were limited to academics, life would be easy. But no. Taxi drivers, assistants, hairdressers, dentists, you name it.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          Hrmmm... we are on Slashdot. This is sort of ground zero for people talking out their butt on subjects they have no expertise in.

          "IANAL"? The acronym speaks for itself.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Isn't "Grothendieck" the Germanic version of the Latin "Biggus Dickus" ?

  • Given the opposition to software patents and the general demand that genius be considered a public property, it's hard to call him even insane. I didn't actually know that he was still alive. I just assumed he was part of Hilbert's generation because of the Grothendieck basis. Well, good for him I guess.

"A mind is a terrible thing to have leaking out your ears." -- The League of Sadistic Telepaths