cult to form a complete list of the members of Bourbaki, and even
harder to determine their exact dates of collaboration with the
group. These dates can only be approximated roughly from the fact
that mathematicians joined at about 25 years and left before 50.
Great Talent, Great Minds
Bourbaki earned fame and influence in part because of the scientific
strength of its members. All of the members of Bourbaki were, or
still are, very good or even excellent mathematicians with great pro-
ductivity outside of the Bourbaki projects. Many members won a
Fields Medal, an international prize whose prestige is equivalent to
that of a Nobel Prize which does not exist for mathematics. The
Fields medallists participating in Bourbaki are Laurent Schwartz
(1950), Jean-Pierre Serre (1954), Alexandre Grothendieck (1966),
Alain Connes (1982), and Jean-Christophe Yoccoz (1994). Meanwhile,
many excellent French mathematicians were not members of
Bourbaki, such as Rene Thorn (the creator of catastrophe theory and
a Fields medallist in 1958), Marcel Berger, Andre Lichnerowicz, and
Jean Leray (who was a member only very briefly following the birth
of Bourbaki).
Several members of Bourbaki are also important and famous out-
side of mathematics. Laurent Schwartz and Alexandre Grothendieck
are just two examples. To the public outside of mathematics,
Schwartz is known not for his 1944 creation of distribution theory
(of great importance in the theory of partial differential equations)
but for his rich political activity dealing with Algeria, Vietnam, Soviet
mathematicians, and the French university system. He recounts
these activities extremely well in his autobiography, Un mathemati-
cien aux prises avec le siecle (published in English as A Mathematician
Grappling with His Century). As for Alexandre Grothendieck, this
genius mathematician produced highly abstract work and revolution-
ized algebraic geometry, a vast subject based on solutions to systems
of polynomial equations and connected to many domains of mathe-
matics, including number theory. Unfortunately for the scientific
community—which he criticized with increasing vehemence as the
years wore on—this unequalled mathematician brutally cut himself
off from mathematics around 1970 in favor of campaigning for the
environment and living an isolated existence in southern France.
A bunch of lunatics, highly secretive and bearing a strange name,
formed of colorful characters who were also brilliant mathematicians;
Previous Page Next Page