Grothendieck’s letter

Recently on, Harry Gindi pointed out that Laszlo’s webpage for an edition of SGA 4 now contains the message

Alexandre Grothendieck a malheureusement souhaité que cessent les travaux de réédition de SGA. Les pages qui étaient consacrées sont donc closes.

It has since come to light that this request came in the form of a letter, which has been circulating in the French mathematical community for the last month. I include here a link to a typed version of that letter, vouching for neither its authenticity or accuracy, along with my pathetic attempt at translating it, for those few whose French is even worse than mine. Feel free to suggest better translations (I’ll incorporate them here).

Declaration of intent of non-publication

I do not intend to publish or republish any work or text of which I am the author, in any form whatsoever, printed or electronic, whether in full or in excerpts, texts of personal nature, of scientific character, or otherwise, or letters addressed to anybody, and any translation of texts of which I am the author. Any edition or dissemination of such texts which have been made in the past without my consent, or which will be made in the future and as long as I live, is against my will expressly specified here and is unlawful in my eyes. As I learn of these, I will ask the person responsible for such pirated editions, or of any other publication containing without permission texts from my hand (beyond possible citations of a few lines each), to remove from commerce these books; and librarians holding such books to remove these books from those libraries.

If my intentions, clearly expressed here, should go unheeded, then the shame of it falls on those responsible for the illegal editions, and those responsible for the libraries concerned (as soon as they have been informed of my intention).

Written at my home, January 3, 2010,

Alexandre Grothendieck.

UPDATE: I have replaced the letter with a corrected version sent to me by Prof. Illusie, and made some changes to the translation, suggested by several people.
UPDATE: You can now see the original handwritten letter.Grothendieck's Declaration (original).

199 thoughts on “Grothendieck’s letter

  1. Grothendieck is notorious for saying one thing first, then another where things other than pure mathematics are concerned. And it would be hard to take a threat to sue seriously as well since it’d force him out of seclusion.

  2. Glad to note that the contents of the Grothendieck circle website are still there.

    Will this mean that SGA1, SGA2, will be taken down from arXiv?

    See Edixhoven here:


    Hence, if the authors are not opposed, the project can go ahead. It seems to be impossible to reach the main author, Grothendieck himself, but I (Bas Edixhoven; I do take responsibility for this statement) do not expect him to be against this project.

    As a common and junior member of the mathematical community, I urge prof. Edixhoven not to be disheartened by this sad turn of events and I fervently hope that the long and hard work put in by him and others in typesetting SGA is not wasted. I also hope Grothendieck relents and at least the SGA volumes stay up.

  3. Awesome, Grothendieck still has contact to other people. It’s funny that he really cares about illegal publications and stuff. Anyways, what is he going to do if people still publish and copy his work. Really suit somebody? That would be awesome (only if he appears in court of course! I would be so happy to see him.)

  4. Don’t worry Andrea.. It will eventually appear in one of the pirate book sites anyway, even Groth. circle is taken down and you miss it now. The only difference will be that instead of pdf you will get djvu format.

  5. Don’t worry Andrea.. It will eventually appear in one of the pirate book sites anyway, even if the Groth. circle site is taken down and you miss it now. The only difference will be that instead of pdf you will get djvu format.

  6. fpqc, while I do understand that your comment is not intended to be taken seriously and is likely more to have arisen from affection than of anything else, I do also see a need to underline the boundaries here.

    What you meant by “sense” above must be the “obvious” words-o’-wisdom, about society-bigger-than-man, science-for-everyone etc., whispered into our ears since childhood, and true by repetition. Modern Day Prejudices, you can say- they do not much differ from their ancestors from medieval or older ages, which we today call ‘superstitions’. If you feel obligated to them, they are yours, and such may be true for million other people, but does not stand in the way of the rights of a single man willing to do otherwise.

    Besides, there can be a manifold of reasons for his wishing to do this. For example, I freak out if even a comma is displaced in anything I author, eg. an email, in reproduction. One can form a huge range of other possible reasons, and even if there are none, Grothendieck’s will alone to do this stands higher than the benefit of the mathematical community of the past, the present and future.

    We can thank him for his association earlier, can request him to continue with it, but cannot hope to be justified in starting to accuse him the moment he chooses to withdraw his association.

  7. Well, first of all, i don’t recognize the existence of “intellectual property” at all, especially not in science and mathematics.

    Second, G stands to gain nothing from this. He doesn’t want money, etc., he merely wants to suppress his own work. We wouldn’t accept results being suppressed by another mathematician. Indeed, G in the past and the current G are completely different people.

  8. What will be the approach in the following hypthetical situation: Suddenly some letter resurfaces, which Gauss or Newton or Euler wrote stating that nobody should republish or use his work.

    Here I note that there are apparently absolutely no problems in reproducing Serre’s FAC for example, since it was published in the US in the 1950s. I checked the copyright laws since I was thinking of translating it. I do not remember the precise terms; but FAC is in the public domain by now. Eventually SGA etc., will also be in the same way. But it may take some long time after the author’s death. Damn the new copyright laws!

  9. As Pete Clark said in the meta thread, Grothendieck has essentially just told us, again, that he is dead, and the action of the telling shows that he hasn’t left yet.

  10. @suman: “Grothendieck’s will alone to do this stands higher than the benefit of the mathematical community of the past, the present and future.”

    The fact is, I simply disagree with this premise. Indeed this may be the most prominent case ever to show how the current copyright system can go against the common benefit.

  11. @suman: “Besides, there can be a manifold of reasons for his wishing to do this. For example, I freak out if even a comma is displaced in anything I author”

    Yes, if Grothendieck blocked the reproduction of his works because of misprints, now THAT would be reasonable!! (not really…)

  12. fpqc, just when I jotted a reminder that personal speculations and/or feelings cannot overrule personal rights, you made it more personal. The fact of the matter is that, that you can speculate no reason/gain/money-output in the action– is yours; and even if you can _prove_ that he had no reasons, that does not dismiss his right to do this, if he had one to start with. fullstop.

    Now I do not know if he does hold the legal right to stop the distributions of his work– ie. if the ball is already out of his court; if that should be the case, he should by definition, be unsuccessful. But it still makes sense for him to appeal, on his part. But that the work in question is SGA, and the author is A. Grothendieck, does not add any weightage in his disfavour. The human rights are symmetric.

    GS, I enjoyed the idea about a letter from Isaac Newton or Gauss. I guess, my answer would be that: the authenticity of the letter is to be ascertained, ie. one has to try and prove/get evidence of (the best one can) that he in deed did write or did not write the letter; given that he did, one has to ascertain if he does/did hold the right to stop circulation of the work; if yes further, it be stopped. Even if the work in question is Principia Mathematica.

  13. I think the Newton or Gauss letter story is just plain silly. Certainly, all their work is now in the public domain, and there is no way to change that. (And even if they could be withdrawn, many of their results are already so deeply embedded in our mathematical culture that their influence could never be removed.) As for Grothendieck, he can’t stop people from using his results, working from legally published copies of his work. Nor can he refuse the use of these copies, nor has he tried to do any of these things, as far as I can tell (notice the phrase “without my consent” in his letter). Legally speaking, he can probably stop the unauthorized reproduction and distribution of his works. People may reasonably disagree on whether he has the moral right to do so, but there is much less room for disagreement about what the law says.

  14. Andrea: really, with all due respect, what I tried to underline above is that Grothendieck’s personal rights are not for you or me to agree or disagree with. Just like the whole set of human beings cannot get together and decide to kill me and be justified, however noble or flowery the words might be used in the claim, as it tries to override my right to live (I am assuming no action on my part in the past crossing others rights).

    This is just the same, but of a lower scale of severity, of course– but basically, attempting to override other’s rights based on emotions, feelings, prejudices etc. Not justified. And you cannot vote to win here. If someone holds a right to do something, and millions of millions of people vote against, those millions of zeroes add upto a zero. And he still has the right.

    fpqc, similarly an existing right of a person is not for you or for _us_ to ‘accept’ or ‘decline’. The ‘past Grothendieck not same as present Grothendieck’ is a highly personal picture again. It’d be okay if you could legally establish this, but– would you have pardoned him as a judge had he committed a murder in 1950’s?

  15. Suman: Legally, that’s not how copyright works. After the author dies, the work passes onto his heir for a period of time (70 years, in the US and the EU, I believe). Newton or Gauss are long past that period, so their works have passed into the public domain.

    I’m not sure whether you were making a legal or a moral argument. If you were making a moral one, I still disagree with you. Intellectual works are unlike normal property in that they can be useful for centuries, and there is no inherent limit to the number of people who can benefit from them. To allow an author’s heirs (or corporation) to own her work forever would harm far more people than allowing a jewel or a piece of land to be so tied up.

    By the way, I want to disassociate myself from fpqc’s views on copyright. I do believe in limited intellectual property rights as the best way to encourage creative work. (Though more so in the arts than the sciences.) I am only arguing against the idea of a copyright that doesn’t end.

  16. David: “Suman: Legally, that’s not how copyright works. After the author dies…”

    Ah, in deed sir– may I say that you did not pay attention? (not that you have to..:)). I wrote: “one has to ascertain if he does/did hold the right to stop circulation…” , so in the above, you added some data to imply that the <> part holds in the statement. No flaws detected !

  17. While I find this news as disturbing as most of you seem to, bear in mind that copyright protects words, not ideas. If someone were to write a fresh exposition of the insights in SGA, they would still be able to publish it. Indeed, most of us learn this material primarily from more modern paraphrases already. And, of course, there are enough copies already in libraries that there is no reason to worry about losing the text for decades to come.

    I am very sorry that Grothendieck wants to withdraw his work from the world, but the copyright system is designed so that even he cannot bring progress to a halt.

  18. As I said David, I didn’t deny that copyright should exist (although perhaps limited to 20-25 years). I denied the existence of “intellectual property”, rather than “time-limited monopoly granted by the people”.

  19. Just to clarify my point of view. I am sure that Grothendieck has technically the right to do so, whatever we say. Neither do I think that copyright is to be abolished.

    Instead I think that this is one of the problems with the current laws about copyright. With better laws he just would not have this right.

    Now for the moral point of view: it is entirely possible that he has some reasons to ask for this; still noone of us was able to think of any. And if he has no reason (and he did not make any claim to have one) I think that his request is morally unacceptable. And I still think that the first comment by fpqc is the best at resuming the problem at hand. :-)

  20. fpqc and Andrea: Fair enough. If we all agree that there should be some monopoly, and it should not be eternal, then I think we are all on about the same page.

    I also wish I understood Grothendieck’s thinking better. (On this, and in deeper matters!) I could imagine all sorts of reasonable objections he could have, but the letter doesn’t give us any clues. Without knowing those objections, it feels like he is just trying to burn down what he created.

  21. Maybe I shouldn’t stir up the bee’s nest of copyright again, but I think an important distinction was smoothed over: the difference between in-print and out-of-print books. I don’t believe in copyright as a moral imperative, but rather as a legal device to allow authors to extract monetary gain from their work. As such, it’s rather silly to apply it to out-of-print books, which authors are almost definitionally incapable of profiting from.

  22. I think I am now more on the same page with the views expressed recently (except for karpov and fpqc). But just one word about “moral argument”:

    what is it really? something that exposes one’s fallacy the moment scrutinized carefully? that one cannot justify the moment a concrete justice system enters the picture? and the preacher hides behinds a flowery word like “morality”, and says `this is too logical, I am being poetic?’ If you are “morally” accusing him and cannot justify an accusation otherwise, how moral are you being yourself? are you not being self-contradicting, whatever the definition of morality you have?

    If the process starts with x executing a rightful action, and followed by a bunch of speculations/emotions/flowery words, ends up in an accusation for him having executed it, it is not justified, morally or otherwise.

    While that it saddens almost everyone in the community, and an expression of that without accusation is very well accepted and appreciated.

    Not being able to find a motive may be puzzling, but not putting him under any obligation. However, I can suggest one. Look at the expressions about “beating him up” and his being “insane” the moment someone’s tiny-tiny brain does not follow the thoughts for his producing his very personal moves.

    And this is not new, recently, wherever I have read about Grothendieck, it starts to talk about his being a “Psycho”; and the only analysis of his action, supporting it is that it does not match with the trivial cultural habits in the Text, followed by commonplace people which they follow just because they are taught to do so from childhood. Now all that says is that he is non-trivial. That he produces non-trivial output; well, isn’t SGA itself such an example? or, may be, it is more Text-like, hence “acceptable”! Psychology is a field that is utterly unable as of date to explain the thoughts of a cow; is it a great surprise that it does not explain Grothendieck’s? These unfounded attacks very well have the merit to be such a cause (there can be more intricate causes of course).

    We do not even have to be thankful. But can’t we stop showing our poisonous teeth the moment we’re sure the juice is out? Just expressing one’s sadness that he withdrew is not enough? Or, may be not that much fun?

  23. I have to admit that I don’t see how allowing Grothendieck to suppress the publication of his works contributes to the progress of science.

  24. @suman: I would have plenty of sympathy for Grothendieck if he wasn’t trying to destroy his legacy basically out of spite because the mathematical community of 40 years ago didn’t agree with him. It’s selfish and purely out of spite.

  25. If someone were to write a fresh exposition of the insights in SGA, they would still be able to publish it.

    That was actually my first reaction. SGA may be an excellent resource, but it’s decades old just as a start. Students come up with a far different culture now, and may profit from a newer treatment.

    Maybe this whole hubbub is just the kick in the ass someone needs to sit down and write just such an updated approach.

  26. Tolland, even if it does not contribute to the progress-of-science, ie. the benefit of the human-herd— which must be the common sentiment— honouring his decision calmly is better than throwing grudges at him, if the pretension were morality.

    fpqc, you do not have to be conditionally sympathetic; in deed, you do not have to be sympathetic at all– just doing him justice would serve.

  27. Suman-

    What about the moral right of people who own copies of SGA to share their property? Grothendieck sold them that book, fair and square; since when is it his business what they do with it afterwards? Obviously, this is not the standpoint of the law, but if we’re going to discuss what’s morally right, I think this a very serious question. If Grothendieck had sold me a painting, he couldn’t then decide that he didn’t like the painting and that I couldn’t show it in my museum. If Grothendieck were depending on sale of his books for income, then I would accept that there was a serious moral argument for buying a copy rather than copying an existing one, but if the question is just “can Grothendieck tell me I can’t read his books?” I think the answer is “no.”

  28. Ben, very nice remarks. Thanks.

    I think I would have to say yes to most of what you say, except that I could n’t follow the question “can Grothendieck tell me I can’t ⟨read?⟩ his book?”. If that word is “read”, I think, not just me, most justice-systems, moral or legal would say “no” too. :)

    No worries, even legally, I do not think the court can seize all the sold copies, without paying for them. I think, he does not intend it either. Looks like he wants to stop further publication and pirated circulation, I may be wrong.

    Just to note, I did not mean that I am sure he does hold the rights (I mentioned this earlier too). It makes sense for him to seek it. It can be looked at, legally, morally whatever– and the decision be taken. But pouring grudges at him because one fails to follow him, is totally out of the place.

  29. I think a lot of folks are quite unable to enter into the mind of someone unlike themselves. Grothendieck’s appeal is moral, not legal, for were it otherwise, he would not speak of shame, rather the law (one should perhaps be careful that the nuances of a word like `illegal’ in the translation may not be present in the original). It seems to me that the author of a letter has every right to ask the letter’s recipient to keep private that letter, though of course the recipient has the right to ignore such a request. It seems ridiculous to suppose that one has a right to disseminate the unpublished draft of a work whose author does not consider it finished. One can launch into irrelevant nonsense about copyright, but one should not forget that the creator of something should be the one who decides when it is done, in its finished form. This has nothing to do with money and law. No one is obliged to share his incomplete, unperfected works with the unwashed hordes, nor his recriminations against Deligne.

    Perhaps some would do well to try to understand what it is that men like Grothendieck and Perelman are trying to communicate by removing themselves from society, rather than simply lambasting them as mentally ill. It is the fool who speaks the truth.

  30. hey, just saw that that word is “read”, showed empty somehow the first-time I loaded. Please pardon that part.

  31. My own — quite literal — translation, typos and all (only the parenthesis in the last sentence has a different meaning than Scott’s translation):

    “Dclaration of intent of non-publication by Alexandre Grothendieck

    I do not have the intention of publishing, or of republishing, any work or text of which I am the author, under any form, printed or electronic, either integrally or through extracts, texts of a scientific nature, personal nature or otherwise, or letters addressed to anyone — as well as any translation of texts of which I am the author. Any edition or distribution of such texts which would have been done in the past without my agreement, or which would be done in the future during my lifetime, against my wish expressly stated here, is unlawful to my eyes. As I learn of these, I will ask the person responsible for such pirated editions, or of any other publication containing without permission texts from my hand (beyond possible citations of a few lines each), to _remove from commerce_ these books; and to librarians holding such books to _remove these books_ from those libraries.
    If my intents as author, clearly expressed here, should not be complied with [litt. “should stay dead letters”], 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 (as soon as the ones and the others have been informed of my intentions).

    Made my dwelling January 3, 2010

  32. suman, your meaning is not clear. I don’t think his declaration applies to itself.

    I’d like to emphasize that solicitations to violence are not socially acceptable, even when made in jest.

  33. About #37: of course, anyone who has a copy of SGA can read it, lend it to friends and colleagues, etc; I don’t see the letter claiming anything otherwise. However, when it comes to unpublished material, things are not so clear; at some point, Grothendieck did send “Récoltes et semailles” and other texts to other people, but that does not give them the right (ethical or legal) to disseminate it, and especially to publish it.

    (Any publication in book form will mean that someone has signed a contract claiming somehow to represent the author; quite an awkward thing to do it it’s a typed version of a 2000 page manuscript which the author never submitted or intended to publish in that form).

    Also, as mentioned above, his claims are purely on a moral or ethical grounds (maybe “illegitimate” would carry the intended meaning of his “illicit” better?). I would assume that, similarly, Y. Laszlo removed the SGA material out of respect for the mathematician Grothendieck, not fear of legal action.

    Comment 39 seems to me very much to the point.

  34. I haven’t read every comment word for word, but I want to address one of suman’s points: superstition vs rights.

    Suman, you accuse those of us who would disseminate Grothendieck’s work against his request to be putting a ’superstition’ (your word) such as ‘society-bigger-than-man, science-for-everyone etc.’ above an individual’s rights.

    Nonsense, at least in my case. Rather, I am putting the rights of individuals (those who wish to disseminate Grothendieck’s work) above the ’superstition’ (to reuse your word) of intellectual property (the idea that somehow Grothendieck still owns what he has sent out to others before).

    Nothing here impacts Grothendieck’s rights as an individual whatsoever. He is free to live his life however he may choose, and I wish him only happiness. While I would be delighted if he came out of retirement and contributed to mathematics once more, I wouldn’t dream of demanding that he do so. Even if the law were written in such a way that I could legally force him to come out of retirement (and pretending that such a thing could work), I would not consider it. It would violate his rights; I mean his moral rights, regardless of what the law may recognise.

    On the other hand, what he has done in the past has been done. He has written letters, published papers, held seminars. While perhaps he would be delighted if we all forgot what he did, or at the very least did not disseminate it further, to use legal threats to demand that we do otherwise violates our rights. Again, I mean our moral rights, regardless of what the law may recognise.

    Now, you may not agree with my analysis of the rights of an individual person. Very well. But don’t think that I’m putting society above the individual, science above the person, superstition above right. I can’t speak for anybody else, but I am doing nothing of the kind.

  35. I should probably add: I don’t hold any grudges against Grothendieck (how could I?); while his retirement saddens me and I don’t really understand his reasons, his choice there is certainly not for me to judge; and I don’t think that people should try to track him down for curiosity’s sake (although I can understand the curiosity!). He wants to be left alone, so I say leave him alone in peace.

    But, while some people may draw a connection, I don’t see that this has anything to do with the issue at hand. (Maybe further publicising Grothendieck’s work makes people more curious about him, so that they bother him more? That would at least be a link, but it is just speculation ….)

  36. #48: as already indicated, there is no legal threat in Grothendieck’s letter; what he says is that if you (or anyone else…), knowing his intentions, publish his work _now_, then he despises you.

    Whether you care about this or not may depend on how close you are or have been to him as a person…

  37. Ah, I also meant to add: If people stop working on publishing SGA etc, in response to Grothendieck’s request, on the basis of their *personal* feelings, then that is not for me to judge either. It is only the claim of a *moral* responsibility to cease that I’m objecting to. I want to say to anyone who continues to disseminate Grothendieck’s work: you have nothing to be ashamed of in my eyes.

    OK, I think that I’m really done now; sorry.

  38. I apologize to anyone who may have felt I targeted them. My words were directed to the concept, not even to the people practising it, let alone the people not so.

    While singing about rights, I cannot contradict myself better than by upholding the author’s right and trying to stamp down the reader’s. Therefore, I never said that, and always included the possibility that he may not hold the right. Also Toby, give him some space! He never said, that he wishes people to forget stuff! I mean, one can imagine that he may have wished so, but he is not responsible for such imaginations!

    Also note that I have never attempted to define these basic sets of rights. Whatever they are, they satisfy certain criteria- a most basic of them being symmetry. I said whatever the ground rules are the decision must be based logically on them; and I added that man-must-serve-the -society, scientist-must-serve-the-scientific-community etc. were not reasons enough to reach a negative conclusion; so are any such commonly held ideas about should-do’s for other people, however noble or sweet they might sound, however many people might hold them dear, however used we may be to them— for they directly hurt the definition of right.

    I also criticised the direct pouring of grudges, sometimes baseless, sometimes backed by I-don’t-understand. Have I said anything wrong?

  39. I disagree for the following reason: copyrights are established to protect the financial incentives of those who do creative work. Copyright is not a natural right in the same sense that life, liberty, and property are. Life, liberty, and property are natural, one could say, “god-given” rights. Copyright is a right granted by the people to incentivize creative work. The use of copyright to suppress creative work is an abuse of this right.

  40. I’m not fluent in French but what about the last sentence “Fait mon domicile le…”. Is that slang or a typo or is there an “en” or something like this missing?

  41. Or an “à”, that would be better. There’s also an “é” missing in the title. Someone should fix this if this is not some secret message by Grothendieck.

  42. I guess the comment of fpqc in #55 best resumes my view on copyright. That was exactly what I intended when I said that copyright laws are poorly designed, and that if they were not, Grothendieck simply would not have the right to ask us to do so.

  43. Can someone fluent in french clarify, please … is it “remove from commerce” (as the second translation above mentions) or entirely remove from circulation? Is request to remove from libraries applicable for original versions also? May be all he intends is to let the works circulated only in original form, and without involving money-transactions.
    Though it will be sad to miss latex-versions of SGA, but I can understand if someone has high expectations on precision and believes he would not be satisfied unless he himself participates in the process.

  44. It is “remove from commerce” (“retirer du commerce” in French; the obvious literal English translation “retirer=remove, take away” works here). I see no clue in the letter that Grothendieck refers to original editions of EGA, SGA, etc (for past editions he refers to texts “dans le passé sans mon accord/in the past without my consent”; clearly, versions which appeared when he was active had his consent).

    As further remarks:

    (i) the pages concerning the re-working of SGA3 do not indicate any recent change (the last updates being dated around late January);

    (ii) the book of letters between Grothendieck and Serre (in the French edition at least) specifically says that it was authorized by J. Malgoire in the name of Grothendieck in 2001; I vaguely remember having heard that, indeed, Malgoire had some kind of formal permission to deal with certain publishing issues in Grothendieck’s name at that time, but that this agreement is not valid anymore.

  45. It is a relief to know that A.Grothendieck still lives. IMHO a man is to be counted more important than his works, or even than his utiliity to humanity, however perceived by those who are rash enough to reckon it.

  46. Emmanuel: regarding your observation that the SGA 1-3 webpages remain unchanged. Grothendieck’s letter says that he does not intend to republish any of his work. That would seem to imply he does not the work copied onto a website. For that matter, it would imply to me that he does not even want the work recopied into fresh paper volumes. Or am I misreading him?

  47. This is a purely hypothetical question in response to the comments of fpqc. Any inferred resemblance to living or dead persons is purely accidental and I do not bear any responsibility for anything untoward the reader might imagine out of my question below.

    Suppose, a person/artist/scientist produces or publishes great work. Then he goes mad. Maybe not necessarily confined to a psychiatric asylum, but does things incomprehensible to the ordinary mortals. And vanishes from civlization, and leaves a note that his works should not be touched.

    So what is the civic duty of the society towards such an individual? Is society obliged to honor his request, out of respect for his past great work? Or if there is a chance that he is really mad, then should one not wait until expert medical opinion arrives?

    As I said, this is a purely hypothetical question, without anybody living or dead in mind. Please do not misunderstand me.

  48. Another question: Does the recipient of a letter have the right to publish the letter?

    I have here in mind the Grothendieck-Serre correspondence. Since Serre was the recipient for half the letters, and sender for the other half, the book is fully legal if Serre gave his permission.

  49. That’s an awfully loaded question, but I’ll shoot: I believe society has a responsibility to publish the works as soon as it becomes clear that the person has no intention of returning to the business of “doing”/creating/researching. The only reason to be careful at all is that it may only be temporary or a test.

  50. My question above about the recipient of a letter is no longer valid in the light of the comments by Kowalski. I am sorry; I saw it only now.

  51. #63: the way I read the letter, he doesn’t want projects like the re-edited SGAs to go on (and I assume this is why Laszlo stopped), and he doesn’t want PDFs of the current versions (“imprimée ou électronique”) to be available, and even more so for his unpublished works…

  52. But then we still have the same problem. The current copies are already scarce, and they will age or be damaged. I thought you were pointing out that the electronic copies had not been taken down in the last month and suggesting that they were OK. If not (and that is how I read the letter as well), then I need to decide whether my respect for Grothendieck implies that I should buy one of these scarce copies (and thus keep it from others, who might read it more often), head to the library whenever I want to read it, or ignore his wishes and read it online.

    And, although I am far too young to have met Grothendieck, I do feel a great deal of respect for him. I don’t think you can read the man’s mathematics and not get a sense of his personality, and admire it.

  53. This, if genuine, underlines how desperate the need is for true copyright reform. The following principles must be incorporated.

    1. Use it or lose it. If you can’t keep it available, then those who can should be allowed to.

    2. Money only. Copyright gets the holder paid for use. Not the power to prevent use.

  54. I feel that this has very little to do with copyright: Grothendieck sees things as an ethical issue; he’s not going to sue anyone and if you have a copy of SGA on your hard drive, you can keep it.

    I can see that there are two different issues: one has to do with already published works (EGA, SGA, etc), and another with unpublished works (‘Récoltes et semailles’, ‘À la poursuite des champs’, etc).

    For the second category, if Grothendieck doesn’t want ‘Récoltes et semaille’ to appear, I don’t see how anyone would be morally entitled to publish it (especially in translation; it’s hard enough to translate clear mathematical prose, but any translation of this would be certainly filled with problems and mistakes that only he could clear up); for mathematical texts also, it seems contrary to the ethics of the mathematical community to publish them if the author has expressed his opposition (otherwise, why shouldn’t anyone feel entitled to disseminate those ‘Preliminary versions / Don’t circulate’ that many people send along with their rough drafts?)

    This being said, I’ve only ever really been using/interested deeply in parts of Grothendieck’s work that _are_ available, and I can imagine that mathematicians whose research deals with the unpublished stuff would feel bad at the idea of not having available one idea a well-edited complete and authoritative version of these.

  55. When people say “Preliminary version / don’t circulate” I think they often mean “I’m not staking my reputation behind any of this being true, and so you should take it with a grain of salt” not literally “don’t circulate.” In particular what does it mean to put something on your webpage that says “don’t circulate.”

  56. Noah: I’ve always meant it literally. “Don’t circulate” is work that I don’t want circulated — primarily because it might be wrong, but also, in some cases, because I am worried abut being scooped. Of course, I wouldn’t put such files on my website, but I did assume that people I gave them to would take the words at their surface meaning.

  57. I am reminded of the intention of Kafka to have all his works destroyed after he died, including tracking down extant copies of his few published writings and burning them. This has clearly not happened. This was, however, in the days before copyright and the legal protection that provided, and admittedly this case (SGA etc) is not comparable because Grothendieck is still alive.

    That being said, what stops the people working on publishing Grothendieck’s works up until now, continuing, and in the event of G’s death, releasing the works?

  58. To accentuate the positive about Grothendieck, he made
    in his own way a durable contribution to mathematics
    which most of us will never make. I recall writing to him
    (probably at IHES) asking about the availability of the
    mimeographed version of SGA3 way back in the era before
    modern technology. To my surprise he promptly sent
    me a bulky package containing the whole thing. Later
    it appeared as Springer lecture notes and seems to persist online. I’d certainly honor his wishes about
    unpublished letters and such. (Some authors like Henry
    James later pressed their recipients to return letters lest they tarnish reputations. James himself wrote
    “The Aspern Papers”, by the way.) But work already
    published is harder to get back into the bottle.

  59. This letter is truly puzzling. I, for one, thought that Grothendieck was all about freeing mathematics completely from institutional control (cf. his preface/tirade against the IH\’ES in SGA I.) The public and \emph{noncommerical} distribution of his work over the web should please him.

    On the other hand, a few years ago in Paris, I did see SGA I being sold as a hardcover (at Gibert-Josef) for a substantial chunk of change (retyped in Latex with nice paper). May be he is lashing out against such things? In any case, I wish the man, as great as he may be, stops being so combative all the time. Didn’t he go around (cf. Grothendieck-Serre correspondence) complaining to people that no body read him any more? And now that people are devoting entire websites to his work, he complains? Can somebody (Cartier maybe?) talk to him personally and explain all this?

  60. I remember ‘Récoltes et semailles’ containing long complaints about what Grothendieck saw as unethical exploitation of his ideas by some of his students and disciples as tools to further their own careers and reputations, when (as he saw it) they should instead have shared those ideas as freely as he had. So I can imagine (though, of course, I don’t know if it’s the case) that he would refuse that his unpublished works be used in the same manner…

  61. It is all Illusie’s fault. :-) Why did he make the letter public? First, it is a private letter and Illusie is under no obligation to make it public. Second, Grothendieck’s very letter states that none of his private letters, including this very letter, should be published. As mathematicians, Illusie should have know Russel’s Paradox. Third, by making it public, it deprives the math community a more readable version of SGA.

    Illusie should have simply spread some rumor about this, so we can all go to Laszlos’ page and copy down every thing before he shut it down. Shame on Illusie, says Grothendieck. :-)

  62. suman,

    First of all, I agree with you that “the pouring of grudges” is not a — shall we say, mindful — response to A.G.’s expressing his own desires as to what should or should not be done with his work. Whether or not we understand or agree with his reasons, it is difficult to argue that he has any less right to these desires than any other being would to theirs. Impugning him for these desires seems fruitless.

    That being said. If I understand correctly, you invoke the concept that A.G. might have a “personal right” that might ethically compel others to forego reproduction of his works. Now, I don’t see how a claim of this “right” is anything other than subjective personal judgment. I assert there is no objective framework — shall we say, no framework on which all rational beings can agree — that says whether it is “more moral” to respect A.G.’s desire to prevent reproduction, or whether it is “more moral” to disseminate A.G.’s work for a perceived benefit to humanity despite A.G.’s desires.

    While I don’t dispute that A.G. has the right to make his request, I assert that it is ultimately a metaphysical question whether he retains any “personal right” implying that we, morally, should follow his instruction. While I am not inclined to impugn A.G’s desires, nor am I inclined to place them above the greater good, should I judge that the greater good is that they not be followed.

    (Obviously the “greater good” argument can be (and has been) used indiscriminately for the justification of atrocity. However that does not mean that its use is an atrocity in every case, or that it would be in this case.)


    P.S. As to what exactly A.G.’s legal rights are here, either as codified, or as might be enforced, is to me a separate issue. As it happens, I have little personal interest in the legal technicalities.

    P.P.S. As a practical matter, useful information will inevitably be disseminated throughout humanity regardless of the wishes of its originator.

  63. This is sad. Grothendieck is a hero of mine, and now he does this. Good thing that I am strongly opposed to all forms of intellectual property, including copyright. The only reason for me to not read Grothendieck’s work is out of respect for him. However, I respect mathemtics slightly more and so I will read his stuff (when my mathematics is advaced enough).

  64. I’m also saddened by this letter. I’ve idly wondered in the past whether anyone’s still in touch with the man, if we even know that he’s alive. As someone above said, this just makes it clear that he died long ago.

    I’ll point out, because I’m not sure anyone else has (although it’s probably moot since we’re all taking this at face value anyway), that the handwriting in the letter is recognizably Grothendieck’s; cf. “Pursuing Stacks” (still available as of this writing on the Grothendieck circle, if you feel that you must have a copy despite A.G.’s objections) and the famous “devil note” in Leila Schneps’ Notices article.

    I’d been hoping to find an inexpensive copy of the G-S correspondence and treat myself for my birthday next month… I may still, but it just became a much tougher decision.

  65. @Harrison: I just ordered my own copy of the G-S correspondence (I’ve been wanting it for awhile, but put it off due to the price tag) when I scanned Amazon and saw that they aren’t selling SGA 1 and 2 anymore. (Also, it seems to not be available from SMF either.)

  66. I wonder if I am the only person who feels exactly as Grothendieck does, here. One has to have a certain amount of faith in the institutions that supposedly support people working on mathematics–university mathematics departments, the NSF, other organizations providing grants–in order to want to publish one’s work, to continue working for a university’s mathematics department, to advise graduate students, to encourage students to pursue a career in mathematics, and so on. I think it is bizarre that so many people employed in university mathematics departments have faith in these things; and without that faith, to publish, or especially to advise graduate students, is very much like having children and raising them when you believe there is no possible way of living for them other than your own meager and pointless one. I would prefer very much to conduct mathematics research in Grothendieck’s reclusive manner than to work a permanent job at a university, and I have great sympathy for the desire to have one’s own work suppressed and silenced whenever it falls outside the minimal channels necessary to make sure it can be obtained by those few who will use it productively and in good faith.

  67. Ahh, I hadn’t checked only And it seems I was wrong on SMF, had been confused (my French is rather weak). On the American amazon, check this: and there’s no option to buy except from third-parties, which is relatively new (I’ve been ogling SGA for awhile, and until recently, I could buy from amazon)

  68. The G-S correspondence seems to be out of print, however: it says “épuisé” on the SMF website. And I am not so sure whether there will be a new printing, so ordering the G-S correspondence might indeed be a good idea.

  69. @Vaibhav 60, Emmanuel 61:

    I agree that the phrase ”remove from commerce” (Fr: “retirer du commerce”) should be clarified by a native French speaker. Also, “remove from commerce these books” sounds clumsy (even ungrammatical?) to my native-English ear.

    Speaking as somebody who knows a bit of French (but is not quite a fluent speaker), this phrase sounds genuinely ambiguous: maybe it means “stop circulating [these works],” or maybe it means “stop selling [these works].” Not a small difference! In modern French usage, it seems that ”commerce” *usually* denotes business transactions (like its English cognate) and that ”retirer du commerce” *usually* means something like ”pull from the shelves” or ”cease doing business with.” However, ”commerce” can also refer to relations or intercourse, e.g. one can ”retirer du commerce avec le monde mathematique” as G. has done (“break off relations with the mathematical community”).

  70. Another thing to take into account: the IHES was about to publish Récoltes et Semailles (at least it said so on their website not long ago).

    Maybe that’s another thing AG is trying to prevent: a media circus due to this strange book being widely read, with many interview requests, paparazzis…hell really.

  71. #94: “remove from commerce” is a literal translation of “retirer du commerce” (indeed, not the most English version), but to a French person (I am French…) it means unambiguously “make unavailable for sale”, and similarly, “retirer ces ouvrages/remove these works” means to take away the books from library shelves.

    A sentence like “retirer du commerce avec le monde mathematique” is not at all natural in French (many French people would be puzzled by it), so I think Grothendieck’s meaning here is unambiguous. It is true that “commerce” may have such a meaning, but the sentence formation would be different, e.g., “Grothendieck a rompu tout commerce avec le monde mathématique”. This is quite an old fashioned construction

    (E.g., my Grand Robert dictionary gives me the nice quotation
    “Je vous déclare que je romps commerce avec vous.”, Molière, “Le Malade imaginaire”, III, 5.)

  72. @Emmanuel 97: Thanks for the clarification of the meaning here. I’m sorry, I had no idea that you were French…

    And thanks for the correction of my French — I thought that I had found examples of “retirer du commerce avec …” meaning “breaking off relations with …,” but it seems I was mistaken. The examples I found (via Google) were things like, “… les avantages que le rouyaume de Siam doit retirer du commerce avec l’etranger…” (“[…] the advantages that the Kingdom of Siam should derive from commerce with foreigners […]”).

  73. Although I am saddened that Grothendieck is taking this attitude to the reprinting of copies of his work, I am very glad that Springer has let the rights revert to him so that he *can* take forbid the republication. I just hope he is not instructing a literary estate to continue forbidding their reissuance after his repose.

    I don’t know of any mathematical instances of the phenomenon, but the fact that Henry Holt & Co. can at the turn of the 21st century prevent the 1928 poem “Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost (d. 1968) from being used as song lyrics shows just how broken the copyright regime has become (at least from the point of view of those of us in the States where the purpose of copyright enshrined in our Constitution is to promote science and the useful arts.)

  74. I recommend the crooked timber discussion of “don’t quote / don’t cite” and the variety of interpretations across disciplines, which diverges from the already tangential discussion of “draft – don’t circulate.”

  75. @fpqc Thanks for flagging the spam.

    This thread seems to be showing the limitations of our filter: 54 and 99 got through while 92 and 103 got stuck. Please point out errors in either direction so I can fix them.

  76. Harry- I thought we had (though that is a pretty misty recollection at this point). At this point spam is not a huge problem; Akismet catches most of it. If starts getting bad, we may have to tighten things.

  77. I am sorry for repeating this question, but:

    What if this letter is a clever forgery? There is no lack of Handwriting experts these days and for samples one has the Grothendieck-Serre correspondence published.

  78. Oh, I am sorry, my language skills are poor and I didn’t express what I really wanted to convey. It is expressed correctly as follows(hopefully).

    There is no lack of expert handwriting forgers these days, and pieces of Grothendieck’s original handwriting are available in the Grothendieck-Serre correspondence for anyone to see, and there are numerous other sources also for getting samples for making a forgery.

    And somebody might have posted it from somewhere near the purported present location of Grothendieck. This might be an elaborate prank to throw the math community into a period of worry.

  79. I don’t know what your first sentence is good for but…anyways we don’t know anything at all of course. Who cares? Grothendieck might be the only person on earth that I admire (seriously) but I really don’t care about this letter (and in particular, I also don’t care if it is a joke or not). His mathematical/personal/political views are there and will be there forever.

  80. Just to add a testimony from someone working in a department staffed with Grothendieck’s former students: the rumor of Grothendieck’s severance from the world are greatly exaggerated. He has kept in touch with several people in the mathematical world these last years (also, his phone number appears in the phone book). However, it is true that he generally asks those people not to speak about their correspondence. In this case, he specifically asked Illusie to disseminate the content of this letter. It is said that in recent months, the letters he has been sending are increasingly unfriendly. Also, several people involved in the re-edition of SGA have told me they would personally stop out of personal respect for Grothendieck.

  81. Like David Robert (comment 78), the first thought that crossed my mind when I heard of Grothendieck’s letter was Kafka’s request to his friend Max Brod that he burn all Kafka’s papers upon his death, and Brod’s deliberate decision, once Kafka had died, not to do so.

    The situation here is not the same, but is not completely different.

    Grothendieck is one of the great mathematicians of all time. His ideas transcend himself. Students now, and in the future, will want to read his ideas in the original form they were expressed. Historians will want to read his mathematical and personal papers.

    I appreciate the desire, out of respect for the person Grothendieck, of those involved in the SGA and related projects to not continue them against his wishes. But I’m not sure that I agree with such a decision. There is also the question of showing respect for his ideas and words. These are some of the great writings of humanity, and belong to all of humanity. Making them available to all humanity, via the internet, was (I thought) one of the goals of the SGA project. It will be sad if it is brought to a halt in this way.

  82. Dear Matthew,
    Your comment seems to indicate you think that greatness and historical significance trump the moral and legal rights of an author on his work. People with whom I have talked about this issue (Laumon and Illusie mainly) broadly agree, I think, but it is still another thing to go directly against the expressed will of someone you (still) regard as a mentor and a friend. At any rate, it is not as if the SGA project is put permanently on halt. It is probably just a matter of years, at the upmost decades, before these works fall in the public domain.

  83. Dear Z,

    I do understand the bonds of affection and respect for a mentor and friend that exist between the various people involved and Grothendieck. Indeed, I can imagine that receiving Grothendieck’s letter put Illusie and others in a terrible personal situation, in which their various personal loyalties (to the mathematical community and to history and science, and to their teacher and friend) became divided one from the other. This is part of what makes the situation sad.

  84. Some background to `Pursuing Stacks’ might be helpful.

    I started corresponding with Alexander in 1982; this turned into a friendly and warm correspondence, which he later termed `a baton rompu’, and which I found greatly encouraging. I early on asked him if I might circulate what he wrote to some of those interested, and he gave me full permission. This led to the circulation in 1983 of successive parts of Pursuing Stacks, a manuscript `written in English in response to a correspondence in English’. My memory is that he wrote that he sent out two copies, to me and to Larry Breen. At that time, he was pleased at the further circulation and the interest in it. It would seem to me to be in the public domain. On the question of publication, he insisted that any publication should be with nothing removed. At one time he suggested that Pursuing Stacks was to be Part I of a new work `A la Poursuite des Champs’ in several volumes and in a new and innovative style.

    The later manuscripts, Esquisse d’un Programme, and Recolte et Semaille, were widely circulated by him, I believe.

    The last letter I had from him was in 1991, very friendly, in response to a postcard from Iona.

  85. @Z at #113:

    If Grothendieck used to be in contact with various people for the last few years, then he must have known about the SGA retyping project. That he did not object for so long means that he gave his tacit agreement earlier.

  86. @Z at #113.

    In any case, nobody tried to get explicit permission from Grothendieck, if he was in contact with the Parisian mathematicians? It would have been an easy matter to get such a letter for the SGA2, SGA3 or SGA4 projects along with one of the letters he sent people.

  87. Questions:

    Q1. Which nation’s copyright laws(ie whether French or US or German) are applicable to the SGA? I suppose, it is authored by French mathematicians, published by a German company and widely distributed in US.

    If it is going to be soon in the public domain in at least one of these places, then it will be a relief. Which brings us to:

    Q2: What is the minimum amount of time we need to wait, ie what is the minimum of all the above three possibilities, that one needs to wait until SGA is in the public domain?

    Sadly, in the US at least, it seems one would have to wait until 70 years after the death of the author.

  88. @GS: If Grothendieck dies, I assume that anyone who he would transfer the rights to is willing to allow the SGA republishing project to continue. However, as I said in an above post, I think that waiting for his death to republish SGA is like preparing to receive an inheritance from an old relative. It just seems wrong to me, and it feels like it would make his lifespan just “something to wait out”.

  89. AG must know his request is logistically impossible even if the mathematical community were willing to comply, which is evidently (as in evident in this thread) never going to happen. And he must have known that Illusie was going to make it public.

    Assuming the letter isn’t someone hoaxster’s idea of a joke–and I don’t think it is–this is a symbolic gesture by a man who’s cleaning house. I think we should just give him the peace of mind and not try to fight it with a lot of kicking and screaming about “what’s best for mathematics.” It’s not going to sway him anyway.

    fpqc’s #121 gives some insight into what might be motivating AG. If he’s somehow separate from his work, and it’s only his work that the world cares about, then if he withdraws our right to use his work, we will indeed be just waiting for him to die.

  90. @ GS #120

    Under the laws of all countries that are signatory to the Berne Convention (including the U.S., the British Commonwealth, the European Union, Japan, China, etc), the copyright lasts for at least 50 years after the death of the author. A longer term will apply in many countries.

  91. @#121,# 122, #123.

    Grothendieck took algebraic geometry as it was in the hands of the geometers in Italy, Zariski, Weil, Serre, etc., and formed it to a different shape and gave it to math community. Then it stabilized after decades. And now he wants nobody to use SGA, etc..

    This is like you taking a partially worked clay from your friend, work it fully, wait until everything dries and hardens, and you declare to your friend, “No, you cannot use my work anymore. If you want, go back to the old situation and start over.”

    Unreasonable, I would say.

  92. I agree. My point was that I don’t think we should wait until after he’s dead. I think that we should do it now and tell him to “shove it”, as it were. I’d rather piss him off while he’s still alive than sit there waiting for him to die.

  93. I noticed today that the books (like the G-S correspondence) are still in the Orsay library. I was a bit surprised, since Orsay is really “Grothendieck’s school”. So apparently they are not listening to him – which is not a problem, of course :)

  94. The Grothendieck circle have announced they will shortly pull the relevant articles/writings from their site.

  95. There is shoddiness everywhere in life, in everything. You will shake your head in disbelief when you encounter it even at the most unexpected places.

    This letter and the ensuing panic is an evidence of something very awkward in some corner of the practices of math research and publishing. I however do not know how to pinpoint it.

  96. @ #132

    Not so much. As I said above, AG must know that it is completely impossible to purge the planet of all traces of his influence. His request is obviously purely symbolic, and while it is surely a fuck-you, I disagree with fpqc that it’s motivated by four-decade-old spite.

    Admittedly I’m speculating wildly, but it looks to me like he’s deliberately trying to re-establish “ownership” of something he knows the rest of us think belongs to us as well. As a result, the fuck-you-too reaction by the community is as predictable as it is unnecessary. We should respond with symbolism as well, as the Grothendieck Circle is doing.

  97. Dear presentlyAnon,

    I don’t understand what you mean when you write of responding with symbolism. As far as I can tell, people are concerned because the SGA project (in particular) was producing a fantastic resource for world mathematics. One can feel sympathy for Grothendieck and at the same time believe that it is important for SGA to be broadly available. I’m sure that reconciling these two competing emotions has been very hard (or is going to be very hard) for those involved in the SGA project.
    This is something practical to be dealt with: does the SGA project continue, or not? How does symbolism answer this question?

  98. Pingback: Anonymous ~
  99. Gibral,

    Education is achieved by asking questions. Please don’t be rude to other commenters.


    Comments often shift around when one of them makes it out of moderation.

  100. Some people seem to interpret the letter as trying to “suppress” existing copies of EGA, SGA, or even the underlying mathematics. It seems to me to be a complete overreaction, as I don’t see any hint of this in Grothendieck’s letter.
    Even with respect to his unpublished work, I don’t see any hint that _independent_ accounts of the theories he describes are targeted — which, indeed, would be utterly unreasonable (an example of these is the “Foundations of Algebraic Geometry” volume that was published fairly recently by the AMS, presenting independent modernized versions of early work of Grothendieck that was even less accessible than SGA).

    It might be useful if a web site (wiki-type) was set up somewhere with the table of contents of each SGA/EGA/FGA volume, and for each precise references to independent modern treatments if they exist, or the closest equivalents.

  101. A.J. I thought the “:)” would indicate that this wasn’t supposed to be rude :) But, okay, we are all just the children of G…rothendieck.

  102. Dear Emmanuel,

    Your comment is well-made, but still, I think that there is a difference between new expositions of the material in SGA and the SGAs themselves. For example, it will take on the whole much less energy to simply reproduce the SGAs in a modern format (i.e. TeXed, online, etc.) than to write many many hundreds of new pages on the same mathematical material. (I don’t think this is a trivial point; if one looks at the number of expositions of SGA material to have appeared in the
    last several decades following the appearance of the SGAs themselves, I don’t think it is very big. After all, the number of experts who could write such expositions, multiplied by the likelihood that they have the time, energy, and inclination to do so,
    is pretty small, I think.)

    I guess the summary of my feelings is that the SGA project was extremely worthwhile, and hence having it shut down is extremely disappointing.

  103. #142: I agree that the SGA project was/is extremely worthwhile; but note that the re-editing projects did not simply LaTeX the material — there is also highly expert additional work in the Editor’s Notes, including corrections, references to further work, and so on. But this part can be done and made public independently of a full re-edition (of course, it would be much less convenient to have to cross-reference with the PDFs of SGA from Springer; note I’m not arguing that Grothendieck is “right” in any sense of the word). Trying to make this work online could help with the motivation/time/energy part — some expert may not want to read through all of SGA 5 and comment on it, but having clarified some obscure problem there because he or she needed it for his or her own purpose, might still be happy writing it down on a suitable web site.

  104. Many people suggest the fact that modern versions of Grothendieck’s work could be published. But since Grothendieck set up much of the current algebraic geometry language, his writings tend to age slower than other people’s, so the potential writers may be less inclined to give an independent account of material that is still quite readable.

    If we add the fact that EGA/FGA/SGA cover a lot of material, the result is that only some parts of the work are actually rewritten or modernized, while for many of the original results a reference still does not exist (and it probably will not for a while).

  105. Dear Matt,

    This whole debate is essentially a moot argument over who “owns” Grothendieck’s work. The answer, of course, is that functionally we all do, and it’s been that way for a long time. In fact, it’s that way for any mathematical work, but when someone of AG’s stature and influence tries to deprive us of something we know to be ours, it drives people crazy.

    Of course, since AG can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube anyway, what difference does it make if we appease him by shutting down the obvious distribution points? Delaying the SGA project is annoying, but it isn’t going to materially affect anyone’s work. The Grothendieck Circle is wisely allowing a get-it-while-you-can period before acceding to AG’s request, which I think is the right approach. Besides, in a few years, he’ll either be dead or someone will convince him to rescind his request, whereas if we try to fight him outright, it will only ossify his position. Pragmatism trumps being “right.” (Aren’t you a parent?)

    We don’t have to understand his motivation. He obviously thinks it’s important, and there’s no good reason not to go along with it since we’ve already won.

  106. If Grothendieck had just kept quiet, his God-like status the cult of personality around him would have been undisturbed. Now so many of the very same mouths that extravagantly praised him earlier, now curse him(perhaps silently, but nonetheless heartily) for this annoyance.

    There is a difference with Kafka. The livelihood and daily work of algebraic geometers and others who use the subject, depend on referring to SGA.

  107. Dear presentlyAnon,

    You have me at a slight disadvantage since you are presently anon,
    but yes, I am a parent. I’m not so much concerned about who is right either, as trying to make a case as to why the work on the SGA project should continue despite Grothendieck’s plea. I appreciate the argument that the delay of the SGA project for some years is not the end of the world; on the other hand, having had the experience myself of learning mathematics in an environment in which the resources for learning were sometimes limited, I feel (maybe more strongly than others, and maybe more strongly than is reasonable) that these kind of resources are invaluable. (It is not so much the impact on an established person’s work I am thinking of, as the impact on a strong but isolated student; though as I already indicated, this may be more romantic than realistic.)

  108. If per #81 someone is now selling an unauthorized hardcover printed book based on the latexed SGA, I could understand AG getting furious at that even though he didn’t mind the noncommercial online copies. And that would get him to pull the plug on everything.

    I think the Circle is doing the right thing, at least at the moment. Maybe things will calm down after a while.

  109. @Prof. Emerton at #147.

    Why is it that open access of academic resources is useful only romantic ideal, useful only in romantic situations? It is exceedingly important to make information available freely, out of the clutches of evil capitalists and intellectual property activists. At least in research. Otherwise doing research in pure mathematics is meaningless. You anyway devote your life and blood and energy to your subject, now to top it all you have to pay to get the raw materials you need? It is plainly impossible and it is terrible social injustice. It should be decried whoever is the offender: Grothendieck, the king, the government, or even if it is God himself.

    I apologize for the leftist leaning rant, but this issue is one close to my heart, for I have also suffered a lot.

  110. @Blog owners. I would be grateful if someone corrects the grammatical errors which I notice only after posting.

  111. I note that #148 had not come out when I left #149(I hope the numbering won’t change again to fuss up things again).

    I checked amazon, and saw that a used copy of the new print of SGA2 was for approx. 200$.

  112. Note that SGA 4.5 of which Deligne is the author, costs onlz $32.31 at amazon.

    Why is it that SGA2 costs more(204$ at amazon, though less at AMS as noted by #152). Also why is SGA1 not in print? Is it a decision by the editor of each project and Edixhoven decided against printing?

  113. Incidentally, it might also be nice to have an updated/LaTeXed version of SGA 4 1/2; despite Grothendieck’s rather strident claims in “Récoltes et semailles”, it is a much easier starting point towards étale topology and cohomolgy than SGA 4 and 5, especially if one is interested in applications towards the Riemann Hypothesis over finite fields (and exponential sums thereover).

    (There’s also Milne’s book for this purpose, of course, but I’ve personally found SGA 4 1/2 easier and more enlightening).

  114. @#155. Aren’t such stuff outlined in the volume of Iwaniec and Kowalski, and also in the lecture notes of N. Katz, available at the latter author’s homepage?

  115. @GS, #146: You seem to suggest that Grothendieck should be making decisions with the goal of maintaining his cult of personality and god-like status in mind. I am curious: why should a cult of personality be important to him (or indeed any reasonable person)? I have yet to see any evidence that Grothendieck cares about such things.

  116. @157. It is reasonable to conjecture that Grothendieck must have significant feelings of superiority over others. Please have a look at the following file:

    Click to access ihes-changes.pdf

    Please have a look at page 2, right side, second last paragraph.

    A visitor complains to Grothendieck about the inadequacy of IHES library, and he replies: “We do not read books; we write them”

    I suggest that the above is a symptom of megalomania and that Grothendieck does care about his high status.

  117. @#147

    Dear Matt,

    You do know me, although it doesn’t really matter here; please forgive my paranoid pseudonym.

    I can assure you that I certainly understand and appreciate the concerns you raise. I think it’s also self-evident that from any rational standpoint, what Grothendieck wants, in addition to being legally dubious, is pointless, unreasonable, illogical, impossible, selfish, and just plain crummy.

    On the other hand, there’s a basic weighing of pros-and-cons: once we’ve put any hurt feelings aside, the only question is whether permanently alienating an 82-year-old Grothendieck is worth the inconvenience of temporarily lying low. The inconvenience to your hypothetical student should certainly be taken into account as well, but in my underinformed opinion it is still outweighed by the potential problems created by telling AG to shove it. That balance may surely change in the future, but right now I think the Grothendieck Circle is making the right call.

  118. #156: of course there are in various places outlines of the applications of étale cohomology to the Riemann Hypothesis and to exponential sums, but that’s not at all the same as a book that proves (most of) the necessary facts! (Neither of the single section on cohomological methods in my book with Iwaniec nor the courses of Katz that I know contain, e.g., a proper definition of an étale map, or of a sheaf for the étale topology, let alone any hint on how to prove the Lefschetz-Grothendieck trace formula…)

  119. G has made and still makes a living (through his State retirement pension) of the science he did create, so it does not belong to him but to the scientific community that funded it. I mean, Einstein too regretted that he were not a plumber at the end of his life, but what is done is done, period!

  120. Grothendieck’s request is preposterous. And people made it pretty far into the discussion without realizing that SGA is not exclusively his work. It is the product of a time period, of G’s collaboration and talks with other mathematicians, of the public funds that paid for his education, from elementary to PhD, and his salary for 20 years.

    It is stupid to ignore all this in favor of the nonsensical, Romantic view of SGA as an atemporal work of art. Especially in an activity as collaborative as math, especially in a work written in the time and place that it was.

  121. Does he call himself Alexander or Alexandre? I’m just a bit confused because his Wikipedia Article says the former, while his signature on the handwritten letter says the latter.

  122. #165

    From the Wikipédia (in Portuguese):

    Alexander Grothendieck (Berlim, 28 de março de 1928) é um matemático apátrida nascido na Alemanha.


    Devido ter passado a maior parte de sua vida na França, seu nome é comumentemente citado como Alexandre Grothendieck, enquanto ele mesmo afirma ter mantido seu nome original.

    Translation into English by myself:

    “Alexander Grothendieck (Berlin, March 28th, 1928) is a stateless mathematician born in Germany.

    Due to having lived most of his life in France, is name is normally quoted as Alexandre Grothendieck, although he, himself, states having kept his original name.”

    Américo Tavares

  123. Italics:

    Devido ter passado a maior parte de sua vida na França, seu nome é comumentemente citado como Alexandre Grothendieck, enquanto ele mesmo afirma ter mantido seu nome original.

  124. The Grothendieck circle website now says:

    Presently ongoing communication with A. Grothendieck will determine the future of this website.

  125. @170, if Luc Illusie, who sent me the scanned letter, asked me to take it down, I’d consider. Otherwise — remember this is an open letter! There are no moral contortions required in order to read or disseminate it.

  126. But what is the reason to remove Mr. Grothendieck’s works? If it’s done to achieve some goal, isn’t there a better way to achieve it? And what could be that goal?

    I think that pursues of removing mathematical papers of such importance justify those questions.

  127. In #146, GS said:

    “There is a difference with Kafka. The livelihood and daily work of algebraic geometers and others who use the subject, depend on referring to SGA.”

    I suspect that something that Grothendieck saw as very wrong is the fact that someone’s livelihood depends on such a thing as a publication.

    None of his works are going to disappear in practice (and he knows it). Ranting about his desires and getting angry at him is as absurd as him getting angry at “us” (if that’s the case, which may not be).

  128. Dear All, allow me, please. I’ve been reading about Grothendieck, and I have some interest on handwritting. Firstly, it does not seem to me Grothendieck’s handwritting. It’s similar, but I’d bet my cards that it is a fake letter. It’s the tipical French way of drawing letters; however, Grothendieck is more into the German way of handwritting; it is “smoother”, lower, and inclined to the left. Ok, now he’s more than 80, and hadwritting usually changes, but, in general, it maintain throughout life certain characteristics which we cannot find here. Second (and a little bit obvious): in all letters I have read by Grothendieck, he signs them “Alexander” and not “Alexandre”.

  129. Yesterday I post a message here. However, maybe my fault, it is not appearing among the others messages.
    Anyway, to me the handwritting of the above letter does not match with Grothendieck’s one. The one showed here has a French style of handwritting; Grothendieck kept a German style. So I suspect of the authenticity of it

  130. Cassio, I’ve freed your comment from the spam filter. However, there really is no doubt of authenticity here. Scott obtained it directly from Illusie, who is a student and long time collaborator of Grothendieck. I think it would be very unfortunate to spread rumours of this sort.

  131. Dear David, I understand it and now I agree with it. I did not know about the connection with Illusie. So I accept the authenticity. However, I do not understand why Grothendieck signed it “Alexandre” — I have been carrying out a little research on the the 2,5 years Grothendieck passed in Brasil, since I would like rescue some details about this episode, and, regarding all the letters I have read so far, this one is the first in which I read “Alexandre”.
    Anyway, thank you for making things clearer to me. The prosecution rests.

  132. Dear Cassio Vieira, could you please contact me via email (see google). I’d be interested in your research on Grothendieck’s stay in Brazil.

  133. It seems to me that this is a tempest in a tea pot. I’m sorry Grothendieck is upset – I hate to see anyone upset – but whatever pain he is experiencing is clearly self-inflicted; no one is causing him pain, whether or not they are violating his wishes or principles – standing back and getting a little perspective is a good idea. I’d like to suggest that there really are no deeper principles or moral conclusions to learn from this whole situation.

  134. Folks,

    This is a classic KAFKA-ESQUE case. Remember Kafka? He was a great writer, but on the other hand he was totally out of his mind.
    If Mr. Max Brod (his friend and issuer) hadn’t STEALTHILY done against his will and kept some of his work for generations to come, a lot of wonderful literature work would now be lost forever.

    We can thank him for that. Even though there were (of course, shocks, you’d wonder if there were not!) some controversies about breach of confidence, betrayal, blah, blah, blah …

    But Brod’s “betrayal” was worth it. (IMHO.)

  135. Clearly, Grothendieck has lost his mind. It would be similar to Einstein asking for relativity to be wiped out of history. The author deeply misunderstands where private intellectual property ends if one works in academia. He should see a shrink.

  136. Grothendieck is part of the mathematical culture in which he grew up and his producttion belong to this culture and mathematics community. For example if Grothendieck had been born in another place with a low level of mathematics sophistication he wouldn’t be able to make such a production . In fact in the (post)modern period the author is dead. Because he is a part of the culture that spreads out a text by him(in any area not only mathematics)

  137. So, can anyone who knows Grothendieck either from reading his works or talking to him in person, explain what Grothendieck’s perspective is?

    Most of the comments above seem to argue from very typical perspectives about whether he should / can morally request this. But what might he be thinking, from his own perspective?

    I feel like from reading the MAA piece “Wer ist Alexander Grothendieck?” I got an inkling of how his viewpoint has changed — moving from bourgeoisie to “radical” as his life progressed — but I can’t connect the dots to figure exactly how he might see his previous work nowadays.

  138. Sad not only that someone (Grothendieck) thinks it’s even reasonable to tell other people what they can and can’t do with their own copies of things, but that such requests typically receive serious consideration even though they are essentially attempts at censorship.

    After all, no one is taking false credit for Grothendieck’s work. That is, there is no plagiarism or fraud issue here. It’s not about attribution. It’s about duplication of information — freedom of communication.

    If someone doesn’t want copies of their work to circulate, the solution is not to publish it in the first place, or to share it only with people they trust. Letting copies out, but then trying to control their circulation, is both pointless and wrong.

    -Karl Fogel

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