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Who is Alexander Grothendieck? Winfried Scharlau This Article Is

Who is Alexander Grothendieck? Winfried Scharlau This Article Is

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Who Is AlexanderGrothendieck?
Winfried Scharlau
F
or a mathematician, it is not hard to givean answer to the question posed in thetitle of this lecture: Grothendieck is one of the most important mathematicians of thesecond half of the twentieth century, towhom we owe in particular a complete rebuildingof algebraic geometry. This systematic rebuildingpermitted the solution of deep number-theoreticproblems, among them the final step in the proof of the Weil Conjectures by Deligne, the proof of the Mordell Conjecture by Faltings, and the solu-tion of Fermat’s Last Problem by Wiles. However,this lecture is concerned not with Grothendieck’smathematics but with his very unusual life on thefringes of human society. In particular, there is,on the one hand, the question of why at the ageof forty-two Grothendieck first of all resigned hisprofessorship at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Sci-entifiques (IHES); then withdrew from mathematicscompletely; and finally broke off all connectionsto his colleagues, students, acquaintances, friends,as well as his own family, to live as a hermit inan unknown place. On the other hand, one wouldlike to know what has occupied this restless andcreative spirit since his withdrawal from math-ematics. I will try to pursue both questions, eventhough an exhaustive and satisfactory answer issurely impossible.
Grothendieck’s Parents
One can only understand the life of Grothendieck—if one can understand it at all—if one knowsabout the life of his parents. I report briefly on thelife of his father.He was from a Jewish family, was (probably)called Alexander Schapiro, and was born in 1890in Novozybkov in the border area of Russia, WhiteRussia, and Ukraine. At the age of fifteen he wasrecruited by anarchist groups that were fightingagainst the tsarist regime; in 1905 Russia was inuproar. After two years of fierce battles, he andall of his comrades were taken as prisoners. Allwere sentenced to death, and all but Schapiro wereexecuted; he was led to the execution plaza everyday for three weeks before being pardoned becauseof his youth and sentenced to life in prison, wherehe spent the next ten years. In the confusion of the October Revolution and the First World War,he escaped and immediately joined the anarchistpeasant army of the Ukrainian General Machno. Hemarried a Jewish woman called Rachil and with herfathered a son named Dodek, but carried on a busylove life outside of marriage. Again, after fierce bat-tles, he was taken prisoner by the Bolsheviks andsentenced to death. Probably during an attempt toescape (or in an assassination attempt?), he losthis left arm. With the help of various women and
Winfried Scharlau is emeritus professor of mathematics at Universität Münster. His email address is 
scharlau@math.uni-muenster.de
.
This article is a translation of the article “Wer ist Alexander Grothendieck?”, which originally appeared in Germanin the
Annual Report 2006 
of the Mathematics Research Institute in Oberwolfach, Germany (copyright © Math-ematisches Forschungsinstitut Oberwolfach 2007). The article is based on the Oberwolfach Lecture delivered byWinfried Scharlau in 2006. With the permission of the author and of the institute, the article was translated intoEnglish by D. Kotschick, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, with the assistance of Allyn Jackson,
Notices 
 deputy editor (translation copyright © D. Kotschick 2008).Scharlau is writing a three-volume biography,
Wer ist Alexander Grothendieck?: Anarchie, Mathematik, Spiritual- ität 
. The first volume, which primarily treats the lives of Grothendieck’s parents, has appeared as a self-published book and is available on the Web at
http://www.scharlau-online.de/ag_1.html
.
 
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comrades in arms, he managed to flee to westernEurope. He went into hiding first in Berlin, thenin Paris. From this time on he lived with forgeddocuments under the name of Alexander Tanaroff.For many years he earned his living as a streetphotographer. Around the year 1924 he returnedto Berlin, where he met Hanka Grothendieck. Heintroduced himself to her husband, Alf Raddatz,with the words, “I will steal your wife.”And so it happened. In March 1928 AlexanderGrothendieck, the son of Alexander Tanaroff andHanka Grothendieck, was born. For five years the“family”, consisting of these three people, togetherwith Hanka’s daughter Maidi (Frode Raddatz) fromher marriage, lived in the so-called “Scheunenvier-tel” in Berlin, where for some time they operated aphotography studio. After the National Socialistscame to power, the situation in Germany becametoo dangerous for the Jewish Tanaroff, and hemoved back to Paris. Hanka Grothendieck decidedto follow her companion as soon as possible.Around New Year’s 1933–34 she placed her five-year-old son in a foster home with the family of theHamburg pastor Wilhelm Heydorn. (Like all peopleclose to Grothendieck, Heydorn was a very remark-able personality about whom a 450-page biographywas published.
1
) Hanka then went to France as well.Both she and Tanaroff took part in the SpanishCivil War, not fighting actively but in supportingroles. After the defeat of the Republicans, bothreturned to France. Certainly with the start of the Second World War, Tanaroff was in danger inFrance as well—as an alumnus of the Spanish War,as a Jew, and as an illegal alien. He was internedin the infamous camp Le Vernet, extradited to theGermans in 1942, and transported to Auschwitz.Under the name Alexandre Tanaroff, he appearson the list of victims of the Shoah. Throughouthis adventurous life he had known only one goal:the fight for freedom and self-determination of allpeople. For that he would put his whole existenceon the line at any time.The life of Hanka Grothendieck was similarlydramatic, although the drama is more internalthan external. Her great goal was to be a writer.Although she had remarkable talent, she ultimatelyfailed. She too lived a life on the fringe. For reasonsof space and time, I will not go into any detail inthis lecture.I now come to Alexander Grothendieck himself.I first would like to report on the outline of his biography. For further information, I refer to thevery informative article by Allyn Jackson.
2
Child to Mathematician to Hermit
As mentioned before, Alexander Grothendieck was born on March 28, 1928, as Alexander Raddatzin Berlin and lived there with his parents and hishalf-sister, Maidi, for the first six years of his life.From early 1934 to the end of April 1939 he livedtogether with other foster children in the homeof Wilhelm and Dagmar Heydorn in Hamburg-Blankenese, where he initially attended elementaryschool and then the
Gymnasium
. Except for theyears at the IHES, this may have been the onlyperiod in his life when he lived in “normal circum-stances”. In early 1939 his situation in Germany became too dangerous, particularly since hisfoster parents opposed the Nazi regime and hadto contend with the possibility that their fosterchildren would be taken away from them. In sucha situation, his Jewish heritage would have cometo light. So at the end of April 1939, Alexanderwas sent to his parents in France. It is unknownwhere he spent the next few months; he was prob-ably with his mother in Nîmes. After the start of the war, Hanka, as a citizen of an enemy nation,was interned together with her son in the campRieucros near Mende. Alexander was able to attendschool there and sometimes had private tutoringas well. Around 1942 Alexander somehow arrivedin Le Chambon sur Lignon. This small town in theMassif Central was a center of resistance againstthe Nazis; thousands of refugees were hiddenthere, given false papers and food vouchers, andthen smuggled across the Swiss border. Thousandswere saved from deportation to German deathcamps. The crucial person in this collective resis-tance was the Protestant clergyman André Trocmé,who systematically traveled to French camps andtried in particular to get out as many children aspossible. Perhaps this is how Grothendieck came to
1
Wilhelm Heydorn, Nur Mensch Sein!: Lebenserrinerun-gen
, I. Groschek and R. Hering, editors, Dölling und Galitz Verlag, Hamburg, 1999.
2
Allyn Jackson, “Comme appelé du néant—As if summoned from the void: The life of Alexandre Gro- thendieck”,
Notices
, October 2004 and November 2004.
Grothendieck around 1936 in the garden of the Heydorn’shouse in Hamburg-Blankenese.
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Le Chambon. (The great story of Le Chambon has been the subject of many documentaries, novels,and movies.
3
) In Le Chambon, Grothendieck wasable to attend the Collège Cévénol, an internationalprivate school founded by Trocmé, which fromthe beginning was dedicated to nonviolence andthe solidarity of all people—not popular ideas in atime of war. In 1945 Alexander completed there hisrather chaotic schooling with the
baccalauréat 
.It is probably by accident that Grothendieckended up in Montpellier after the war. Perhapshis mother had found work there. He receiveda modest scholarship and started his studies of mathematics. It soon turned out that the univer-sity did not have much to offer him, and he had torely largely on self-study. Since the time he was inschool, he had planned to find out what conceptslike length and volume really mean, and accord-ing to his own reports, he basically developedthe theory of the Lebesgue integral. In the fall of 1948 he went to Paris for a year, where he metthe most important French mathematicians of theday, both the active middle generation of HenriCartan, André Weil, Jean Leray, Laurent Schwartz,and Claude Chevalley, as well as the youngergeneration, his contemporaries Jean-Pierre Serre,Pierre Cartier, François Bruhat, and Armand Borel.Originally, Grothendieck had hoped to be able toquickly get a Ph.D. for his work on the “Lebesgueintegral”. Of course, he now found out that to alarge extent he had simply rediscovered knownthings. Nevertheless, he wanted to stick with thissubject, so, following the advice of Cartan andWeil, on June 20, 1949, he wrote a letter to JeanDieudonné, who like Schwartz was teaching inNancy. From this time on, Grothendieck came intothe mathematical mainstream, and it is generallyknown what he did and achieved during the nexttwenty years. So that I can keep my account short,I refer for details to Jackson and the literaturequoted there.To begin with, Schwartz gave Grothendiecka paper to read that he had just written withDieudonné, which ended with a list of fourteenunsolved problems. After a few months, Grothen-dieck had solved all of them. Try to visualizethe situation: On one side, Schwartz, who had just received a Fields Medal and was at the topof his scientific career, and on the other side theunknown student from the provinces, who hada rather inadequate and unorthodox education.Grothendieck was awarded a Ph.D. for his workon topological vector spaces and stuck with thatfield for a while. He went to Brazil for two yearsand then to Kansas. Largely under the influence of Serre, he turned to algebraic geometry beginning in1954. The most spectacular new result in the fieldwas the theorem of Riemann-Roch-Hirzebruch.Within two years of the awakening of his inter-est in algebraic geometry, Grothendieck found afar-reaching generalization and a completely newproof, which has remained possibly his most sig-nificant single achievement in mathematics.The next fifteen years of Grothendieck’s sci-entific work were dedicated to the rebuilding of algebraic geometry. In 1958 he was appointedto the IHES, which had just been founded bythe businessman Léon Motchane. Together withDieudonné, his former teacher and now colleagueat the IHES, Grothendieck began working on the
Eléments de Géométrie Algébrique
(EGA) and heldthe legendary
Séminaire de Géométrie Algébrique
 (SGA). Many mathematicians who were close tohim in those days emphasize that his way of doingmathematics was completely singular: He was notinterested in the solving of difficult or famousproblems, especially if it had to be done “by force”, but his goal was to achieve such a deep and com-plete understanding of the underlying structuresthat the solutions of such problems would fall out“on their own”.During his twelve years at the IHES, Grothen-dieck led an outwardly bourgeois life: He marriedMireille Dufour and had three children with her, born in 1959, 1961, and 1965. Earlier he had hada son from a previous relationship. However, theeducation of his children was unconventional;at least temporarily, they did not attend publicschools. Grothendieck thought that finding one’sown way was more important than a formal educa-tion. His home was hospitable, and he sometimestook in people in need for weeks at a time.In his IHES seminar, Grothendieck surroundedhimself with a group of outstanding students to
Grothendieck’s house in Villecun, where he lived from1973 to 1979.
   A  r  c   h   i  v  e  o   f   W   i  n   f  r   i  e   d   S  c   h  a  r   l  a  u ,   2   0   0   6 .
3
See for example Philip P. Hallie,
Lest Innocent Blood BeShed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and HowGoodness Happened There
. This book has been published in several editions by Harper & Row, New York.

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