Alexander Grothendieck

Alexander Grothendieck died on Thursday at age 86 in Saint-Girons.

Grothendieck, who started his work in functional analysis, is known for his far-reaching (and still incomplete) program of creating new foundations for algebraic geometry, a work that he led at IHES in the 50s and 60s and that is documented in the thousands of pages of EGA and SGA. If modern algebraic geometry is built on schemes, has applications to number theory, has definitions given in a category-theoretic language, and is completely incomprehensible to the novice, it is all thanks to Grothendieck’s vision.

In his 40s, and the top of his game, Grothendieck left IHES over the issue of military funding, and progressively detached from the mathematical community, while embracing environmental and anti-war causes.

Grothendieck’s life story, from his escaping Nazi Germany, to his revolution in mathematics, to his radical politics and later hermit life, is spellbinding. Some of it is told in a great two-part article in the Notices of the AMS (part 1, part 2) and I would also recommend this more technical essay and this more philosophical one.

Grothendieck has a flair for effective naming, he had a way with words, and he liked elaborate metaphors. Here is his famous “how to break a nut” analogy describing his style of mathematical research

I can illustrate the second approach with the same image of a nut to be opened. The first analogy that came to my mind is of immersing the nut in some softening liquid, and why not simply water? From time to time you rub so the liquid penetrates better, and otherwise you let time pass. The shell becomes more flexible
through weeks and months—when the time is ripe, hand pressure is enough, the shell opens like a perfectly ripened avocado!