Grothendieck in the New York Review of Books

I would be inclined to write more about Jim Holt’s very generous review of MWA in the December 3 issue of the New York Review of Books but I’m still feeling rather disoriented, I think understandably, by the weekend’s events in Paris.  You can get a sense of the atmosphere from this news item in the free daily 20 minutes:

19h48: Témoignage après la panique à Jaurès vers 18h30

Une jeune fille, Julie, a confié à 20 Minutes le mouvement de panique qui a touché une partie de la capitale en fin d’après-midi. Julie prenait un verre au café 25, au bar-restaurant La rotonde, Place de la Bataille de Stalingrad dans le nord de Paris (métro Jaurès). La jeune fille qui était avec des amis confie que vers 18h30, elle a vu des gens courir. Dans la confusion, elle et ses amis se sont eux aussi mis à courir. Certains personnes ont d’ailleurs sauté dans le canal. Elle est passée en courant devant le cinéma MK2, où elle a croisé des gens qui disaient de courir, fuir. Elle s’est engouffrée dans un immeuble avec des passants. Ils ont été «4-5» à être accueillis par un couple de personnes agées. Au bout d’une quinzaine de minutes, elle est ressortie. Elle ne sait toujours pas ce qui a déclenché ce mouvement de panique mais elle était très choquée.

This happened last night just in front of our local movie theater.   I added the emphasis; the boldface passage can be translated “Moreover, some people jumped into the canal”  (Google Translate gives a decent translation of the full quote).  This is the Canal de l’Ourcq, or more precisely the Bassin de la Villette, a popular place for strolling or having a drink, but it’s a really bad idea to jump in under any circumstances.

And then there’s today’s list of bomb scares in Le Monde.

Holt’s review is only available to subscribers.  I have quoted a few excerpts here.  The title of the review, “In the Mountains of Mathematics,” has no obvious connection to its content or to MWA and must have been chosen by the editors, as were the three illustrations.  Maybe it’s a reference to the mountain town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in the south of France, where the teenage Grothendieck was hidden from the Nazis during the Second World War?  One of the three illustrations is this photo that accompanied the New York Times article published upon Grothendieck’s death.  Holt devotes nearly a quarter of his review to Grothendieck and category theory.  Apart from a footnote in an article published last year on Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, this seems to be Grothendieck’s first official appearance in the New York literary institution.  I can’t imagine a more engaging way to introduce the NYRB‘s (primarily literary?) readership to category theory and to a mathematician whose life, as I wrote (and as Holt quotes), “begs for fictional treatment.”

The first thing the reader sees upon opening the review is a picture of Einstein and Gödel (neither of whom has much to do with MWA) in front of the Institute for Advanced Study (where much of the “action” of MWA takes place).  I will be extremely gratified if Holt’s essay makes readers more curious about Grothendieck’s role in contemporary culture, as profound and transformational as that of the two familiar Princeton icons.


5 thoughts on “Grothendieck in the New York Review of Books

  1. Pingback: Dirty Hands, part 1: Forbidden fruits | Mathematics without Apologies, by Michael Harris

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