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March 28: The Stateless Mathematician

Lawrence Bush
March 27, 2017
Alexander Grothendieck, a creator of modern algebraic geometry and one of the most influential mathematicians of the 20th century, was born to anarchist parents in Berlin on this date in 1928. He was raised and lived primarily in France — during World War II in the rescuer village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, while his father died in Auschwitz. Grothendieck became a professor at the Institut des hautes études scientifiques (IHÉS, the Institute for Advanced Scientific Studies), a small research institute created for him and mathematician Jean Dieudonné, from 1958 until 1970, when he quit in protest of the institute’s military funding. In 1966, he was awarded the Fields Medal, but refused to travel to Moscow to receive it in protest of Soviet repression of writers. Two years, later he formed, with two other mathematicians, a political group known as Survive and Live, dedicated to anti-war and ecological issues and to the ethical mobilization of science and technology. Grothendieck remained active in mathematical research and university life in the 1970s, but spent much of the rest of his life living in isolation or in rural communes, practicing Buddhism, writing a memoir (Reapings and Sowings), accusing other scientists and mathematicians of plagiarism, and refusing medals and prizes. With records of his nationality destroyed in Germany in 1945, he refused French citizenship, in part because of the Algerian War, and became a stateless person for much of his adult life, traveling on a Nansen passport, an international document for refugees. He died at 86 in 2014. “If there is one thing in mathematics that fascinates me more than anything else (and doubtless always has), it is neither ‘number’ nor ‘size,’ but always form. And among the thousand-and-one faces whereby form chooses to reveal itself to us, the one that fascinates me more than any other and continues to fascinate me, is the structure hidden in mathematical things.” --Alexander Grothendieck

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.