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February 10, 2010

Grothendieck Said: “Stop”

Posted by John Baez

Recently a team of mathematicians have been trying to republish the famous series of papers called “SGA”, or “Séminaire de Géométrie Algébrique”. This was largely the work of Alexander Grothendieck, who had refused to let Springer Verlag republish the original version.

As the Wikipedia article explains:

In the 1990s it became obvious that the lack of availability of the SGA was becoming more and more of a problem to researchers and graduate students in algebraic geometry: not only are the copies in book form too few for the growing number of researchers, but they are also difficult to read because of the way they are typeset (on an electric typewriter, with mathematical formulae written by hand). Thus, under the impetus of various mathematicians from several countries, a project was formed of re-publishing SGA in a more widely-available electronic format and using LaTeX for typesetting; also, various notes are to be added to correct for minor mistakes or obscurities. The result should be published by the Société Mathématique de France. Legal permission to reprint the works was obtained from every author except Alexander Grothendieck himself, who cannot be contacted; it was decided to proceed without his explicit agreement on the grounds that his refusal for the SGA to be re-published by Springer-Verlag was an objection against Springer and not one of principle.

“Cannot be contacted” — because, as you probably know, in 1991 he burned thousands of pages of his own work and left home for an undisclosed location, making himself inaccessible, with a few exceptions.


…recently Grothendieck has made his presence felt again. On Yves Laszlo’s webpage devoted to re-editing of the fourth volume of SGA, it now says (in French):

Alexander Grothendieck unfortunately wished that work of republication of SGA cease. The pages which were devoted to this are thus closed.

Anyone know more about this?

Posted at February 10, 2010 6:16 AM UTC

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Re: Grothendieck Said: “Stop”

Anyone know more about this?

(Thanks to Scott Morrison on the n-Forum.)

Posted by: Toby Bartels on February 10, 2010 7:55 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Grothendieck Said: “Stop”

Someone should probably edit the post with the updated info.

Posted by: Harry Gindi on February 11, 2010 4:56 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Grothendieck Said: “Stop”

Nobody has the right to hold the mathematical community hostage, whether it be for profit, like the big evilpublishers do, or for his personal beliefs.

Posted by: Andrej Bauer on February 10, 2010 8:56 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Grothendieck Said: “Stop”

I don’t see community held hostage by anyone.

It is governed so by itself. Witness the 20 years of Internet in every department and how it didn’t change a thing in operation of publishing cartel; The only reason being politics of establishing pecking order amongst mathematicians themselves.

All Grothendieck said in the last 20 years, including this letter, is he helds us all in contempt and that he despises the business of mathematical publishing and assignment of credit as rotten with unethical behavior. He did not say he will litigate, instead only cursed us, “may the shame of this contempt fall on those persons responsible for the unlawful editions and on the persons in charge of the libraries concerned”.

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on February 10, 2010 1:23 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Grothendieck Said: “Stop”

The SBS comments are all very interesting but getting a bit long so I’m posting here instead.

I have absolutely nothing to say about SGA or Grothendieck. The former is simply a TLA that I’ve never really understood what it means. The latter is a person that I’ve never met, though I’ve benefited from his work (indeed, I wrote part of my thesis with Produits tensoriels topologiques et espaces nucleaires open on my desk in front of me).

What strikes me is that there ought to be a Maths Public License. Something along the lines of:

  1. Don’t plagiarise my prose (quotes and “fair use” aside)
  2. Do quote my maths but please attribute it to me

Essentially, that’s what the GnuGPL does for software: distribute but attribute. Unlike the software writers, we can make the distinction between the mathematics and the way that it is expressed, but if I state a theorem or definition or even a proof and someone wants to reproduce it somewhere then please do, just let whoever reads it know where to find the original.

That seems to encode pretty much what we do, it’s just that it’s not enshrined in law.

Posted by: Andrew Stacey on February 10, 2010 9:29 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Grothendieck Said: “Stop”

Wouldn’t your proposed Maths Public License just be Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial?

I have the strong feeling that the Creative Commons licenses capture enough different settings mathematicians might prefer. It’s just that very few mathematicians (re-)license their works under a CC license.

Maybe there is some reason for this?

Posted by: Konrad Voelkel on February 10, 2010 3:29 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Grothendieck Said: “Stop”

Quite possibly! I’m not claiming any sort of originality here. However, I doubt that any current license specifically makes a distinction between the mathematical content and the text used to express it. But this is nitpicking.

I suspect that many mathematicians don’t understand all these different types of free license (I certainly don’t) and if there was a simple “Maths Public License” (maybe sanctioned by the AMS?) that was easy to understand then it may be easier for mathematicians to simply say “Yup, I’ll use that.”

Posted by: Andrew Stacey on February 10, 2010 6:52 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Grothendieck Said: “Stop”

The only important fact to know as a practitioner is the difference between GPL and LGPL (the last one is the lesser Gnu public license). If you use software published under the GPL, you have to make that software open source too, in case of the LGPL you do not have to (you can use LGPL libraries to build software that you then sell as a closed source product).

But IMHO this whole point is misguided, what you need is a community where everyone is happy to publish and is happy if his/her work is used, and no one is dependent on money earned by selling her/his results, making the exodus of Grothendiek, Perelman and others a sad, but rare, exception.

Posted by: Tim van Beek on February 10, 2010 7:55 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Grothendieck Said: “Stop”

Note that when submitting to the arXiv people have the option to use a Creative Commons license (see

Posted by: James on February 10, 2010 9:23 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Grothendieck Said: “Stop”

It seems to me that the analogy is misleading, since the purpose of free software is specifically to enable the literal copying of source code, which if I understand correctly, is the only thing that copyright otherwise forbids; it doesn’t protect ideas. Are you talking about a license permitting literal copying of mathematical writing? That seems a bit odd to me—I think usually when we “reproduce but attribute” someone else’s math, we prefer to rephrase it in our own words anyway.

Posted by: Mike Shulman on February 11, 2010 6:20 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Grothendieck Said: “Stop”

This is getting off-topic, but the intent of most free software licences is to require someone who modifies and redistributes some code has to use the free licence to redistribute the source code modifications as well. The aim is more that “if you stand on someone else’s shoulders, you have to allow later people to stand on yours”. (The confusion arises because the license doesn’t grant the right to literal copying unchanged portions unless you agree to more liberal terms.)

This doesn’t make much sense in the mathematical world since you not only can but by tradition always do “rexpress” the essential content of someone’s work in the papers/books to build on it. The only case it remotely comes up is cases like this where you want to reprint something for reference purposes.

Posted by: bane on February 11, 2010 7:34 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Grothendieck Said: “Stop”

Mathematical truth cannot be blocked, censured or denied access. If Alexander Grothendieck refuses to allow for the re-publication of his work, let one or more persons sit down with the text, work through the demonstrations then write up their own “discovery” of its truth, merit or demerit. Who knows? It may turn out that the great Grothendieck made mistakes!(A good reason to not want them re-published.) This method would weed these out.
I would not go so far as to say that Alexandre is “deranged”, given the equally deranged verdicts of courts nowadays in awarding penalty payments for “plagiarism” in, say music…

Posted by: Roy Lisker on February 10, 2010 6:22 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Grothendieck Said: “Stop”

It is well known that, for instance, in SGA 4 there are mistakes. The joy of reading Pursuing Stacks, included seeing him dragging ideas from the darkness (and read some of the stuff that has been written on this to understand what he meant.) Those seminars, and the manuscripts were working documents, not meant as shrines to worship at, and perhaps all that AG is doing is saying ‘demolish the shrine’! I do not know. In what little we know of his more recent views, he seems to have reacted against personality cults in Science, including that surrounding himself.

On another tack, unfortunately ideas are plagiarised from archive papers, preprints etc. and credit always has been wrongly attributed. In the long view this does not matter, BUT it can be devastating in the career of a young mathematician. (In other documents, AG attacked exactly this in detailed cases.) If you don’t know it, do listen to

but I digress (another Lehrer quote!)

Posted by: Tim Porter on February 11, 2010 8:22 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Grothendieck Said: “Stop”

As Tim Porter writes, it possible that he’s reacting against a personality cult.
That said, this will probably sort itself out in a few years, when the rights to his works are transferred to someone else. Because, with all due respect, the man is turning 82 in a month or so.

Posted by: Morton on February 11, 2010 12:15 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Grothendieck Said: “Stop”
It says here:

Why should it be suppressed what’s going on there?

Posted by: kim on February 15, 2010 7:49 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Grothendieck Said: “Stop”

Now I feel sorry that I did not comment few days ago, as I predicted this move about the circle (it looked so logical as my advance prediction of the usage of sedative gas in the Moscow theatre siege few years ago by the Russian special forces). I mean I do not think that he would be bothered with copyright concerns itself, and especially not so suddenly; but certainly with something wider than that.

AG must have SEEN, it was my theory last weekend, something what has irritated him and being bigger than mere copyright issue. And if his books are a part of the irritating ensemble, then the circle of siding with his historical legend, which understandably he hardly may feel identified with, must be precisely of that kind. Notice that in general for a living mathematicians there are no fan sides, would you dare administer one for a great active mathematician ? Probably not as you could be criticised and inducing strange feeling in a living person. Maybe AG found internet and made a little google search (what is happening with my mathematics; he might have been curious) and maybe he found something seemingly beyond the scale of the good taste for privacy and peace he is used to outside of the fame in part of the mathematical world.

But the circle and retyping and the rest is there partly just because of the mistery he introduced with his misterious departures, stopping of communication, burning manuscripts and so on. While these moves may be most natural to his soul, they are externally the least natural for mathematicians nurished by the immense creativity he brought to the mathematics we all love and sacrifice big parts of our own lives for.

And most hurt by any break, specially of internet copies of his half-available work, will be mainly those who already suffered from being outside of the powerful towers of rich and strong mathematical centers and libraries of Moscow, Harvard and Paris, and alike. In Paris there is anyway enough many copies. But not in Tuzla, Bosnia, not in Ouagadougou and the rest of Africa, not in Guatemala. People in Guatemala did not have the chance to work with AG when he was active, now he wants in effect that this unjust thing be fortified and extended to deprave them reading his works, now when he is presumably not active any more, and the internet gave them chance to diminish the bad fate. I doubt that these are effects he really wants.

I see no reason to shut down that site just on the demand. He could come to them and discuss human to human his and their reasons. Then a better solution could be found, I am sure. With due respect the site is not his own, it is the site dedicated to the phenomenon of his opus and of love toward his way of mathematics. A denial is of no relevance to these notions at any abstract level; and raising human spirit to abstract understanding is something really beautiful. And of course he does know this. Thus the only real effect is prolonging the inequality between Paris and Guatemala as far as enjoying mathematical art is concerned.

Posted by: Zoran Skoda on February 15, 2010 11:28 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Grothendieck Said: “Stop”

I agree with a lot of what Zoran says, especially with regard to the availability of his work in the less affluent parts of the mathematical world. Even so, nearly all of his work has been digested and reworked so as to make it more accessible for general mathematical use. For most purposes we do not need to consult the original version. I, for instance, have a personal almost original copy of Pursuing Stacks, and although I have read it through many years ago, and continue to research in that area, I very rarely use it except if I need to quote something as a ‘justification’ for something I am writing.

The work of interpreting ideas derived from Grothendieck’s work and making them available to the wider mathematical community could be thought of as one way to get around AG’s dislike of future publication of things directly derived from him, but it is also, in part, what we have been doing in the n-Lab and this blog since the start, and that without any thoughts other than that of learning and of sharing ideas.

I think that, if you can read French, it is a good idea to read the actual letter which has been made available in various places, and to think about what is says, and what it does not say. Please do not `read between the lines’ too much, as I think some people have tried to do. If you do not read French beware of the detail in a translation as even an excellent translation is just an interpretation. Beware also of differences in culture between countries and traditions.

Posted by: Tim Porter on February 16, 2010 3:56 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Grothendieck Said: “Stop”

I like Tim’s suggestion of actually reading the original words of the letter, rather than reacting to what one thinks the letter is saying, or to what people are saying the letter is saying. (More generally, I sometimes wonder if the distinction between primary and secondary sources is being increasingly overlooked in online discourse; but that could just be grumbliness brought on by indigestion.)

I’m also uneasy with a faint whiff of entitlement over on the SBS comment thread which was linked to above - but perhaps that’s just the internet’s usual effect of magnifying a few loud voices out of proportion.

Anyway, if it hasn’t already been mentioned, for those who don’t feel like reading the original French, there is a fairly literal translation of Grothendieck’s letter, done by Emmanuel Kowalski. My own French is pretty shoddy but Emmanuel’s translation looks free from embellishment or interpretation.

Posted by: Yemon Choi on February 17, 2010 8:56 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Grothendieck Said: “Stop”

It seems to me that Mr. Grothendieck’s narcissism has struck again. Now I feel that the day of his death (and consequent end of his opposition to mathematical progress) will not be a very sad one for me.

Posted by: cristian d.gonzalez-aviles on March 12, 2010 9:13 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Grothendieck Said: “Stop”

Well, I would be much happier if he actually came back to mathematics, of course. But if he wants to be left alone, that's fine with me. I just wish that he would leave us (active mathematicians) alone too, instead of trying to inhibit us.

It doesn't help that we don't always leave him alone when he asks either.

Posted by: Toby Bartels on March 14, 2010 9:06 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

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