Andre and Eveline Weil in 1939.
Andre Weil (1906-1998), the
brother of the philosopher Simone
Weil, was one of the great mathe-
maticians of the twentieth cen-
tury. He played a central role in
Bourbaki, even after he left
France in 1941.
many people who spotted the group during one of their conferenc
called them "a bunch of lunatics"!
On the other hand, this bunch of lunatics behaved (and behave
much more discreetly outside their conferences. One of the mo
striking peculiarities of the Bourbaki enterprise is that no outsi
person is supposed to know who the current members are, what t
group is working on, or when and where the conferences take plac
During a series of interviews with former Bourbaki members, led
the reporter Michele Chouchan and aired on France-Culture in 198
Laurent Schwartz, an early Bourbaki recruit, said that "whenever
was asked if I was a member of Bourbaki, I had to say no. If I wasn
a member, I was speaking the truth, and if I was a member, I w
required to say that I was not." Also, at the Bourbaki secretaria
housed in an office at the Ecole Normale Superieure, one is polite
told that Bourbaki doesn't help newspapers or accept interviews, an
that it "neither confirms nor denies any information circulatin
about the group." In short, it is difficult to obtain direct informatio
Only former members agree to break the silence.
There are several reasons for this tradition (or mania?) of secrec
According to Bourbaki, the group preserves its secrecy to preserv
the collective nature of their enterprise. Bourbaki writes its books
a collective effort, and no member must be allowed to put himse
ahead of others, be it for scientific merit or for the collection of ro
alties received from sales of the group's books. Of course, th
secrecy also allows the group to work productively without being di
turbed; the fact that the group was most secretive during its gold
years from 1950 to 1970 supports this view. This secrecy may al
protect the group's members from influential scientists who we
skeptical or hostile towards the project, and such people did exi
from the very beginning. Withholding the names of the members al
strengthens the authority of the group's treatise: the contents of th
books appear as the expression of a consensus, with any disagre
ments among the members of the group remaining invisible. Finall
the secrecy served a social function: strengthening the cohesion
the group and helping to create the myth surrounding it. This is n
the least among the charms of Bourbaki.
It appears that Bourbaki was initially less secretive than it becam
in later years. An example of this lack of secrecy is a letter written o
November 17, 1936 by Mandelbrojt, Delsarte, Cartan, We
Dieudonne, de Possel, Coulomb, Chevalley, and Ehresmann to th
physicist Jean Perrin (at the time the State Undersecretary f
Scientific Research). This letter, a grant request, summarizes wh
Bourbaki was and describes the financial difficulties of the projec
Previous Page Next Page