The Artist and the Mathematician: The Story of Nicolas Bourbaki, the Genius Mathematician Who Never Existed

The Artist and the Mathematician: The Story of Nicolas Bourbaki, the Genius Mathematician Who Never Existed

by Amir D. Aczel
     
 

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Nicolas Bourbaki, whose mathematical publications began to appear in the late 1930s and continued to be published through most of the twentieth century, was a direct product as well as a major force behind an important revolution that took place in the early decades of the twentieth century that completely changed Western culture. Pure mathematics, the area of

Overview

Nicolas Bourbaki, whose mathematical publications began to appear in the late 1930s and continued to be published through most of the twentieth century, was a direct product as well as a major force behind an important revolution that took place in the early decades of the twentieth century that completely changed Western culture. Pure mathematics, the area of Bourbaki's work, seems on the surface to be an abstract field of human study with no direct connection with the real world. In reality, however, it is closely intertwined with the general culture that surrounds it. Major developments in mathematics have often followed important trends in popular culture; developments in mathematics have acted as harbingers of change in the surrounding human culture. The seeds of change, the beginnings of the revolution that swept the Western world in the early decades of the twentieth century — both in mathematics and in other areas — were sown late in the previous century. This is the story both of Bourbaki and the world that created him in that time. It is the story of an elaborate intellectual joke — because Bourbaki, one of the foremost mathematicians of his day — never existed.

Editorial Reviews

Nicolas Bourbaki etched a name in mathematics history without ever showing his face. His papers on advanced math subjects began appearing in the mid-1930s; they soon became key documents for advocates of theory with no direct connection to the real world. In The Artist and the Mathematician, Amir Aczel (author of Fermat's Last Theorem and The Mystery of the Aleph) charts the career of a mathematician so theoretical that he never existed.
Publishers Weekly
Lay readers interested in mathematical history will learn a lot they didn't know from Aczel's latest book, which focuses on a group of French mathematicians who in the 1930s decided to publish their collective work under an imaginary name. But readers may also get the feeling that this able math and science popularizer is running out of suitable topics. It's not that the contributions of the Bourbaki school weren't important-their rigorous approach to proofs and emphasis on set theory provided the basis for what became known as the New Math-it's just that this curious story isn't as inherently dramatic as, say, that of Andrew Wiles's solving Fermat's Last Theorem. Aczel surveys with his usual panache the careers of some major members of the group, like the eccentric Alexandre Grothendieck, who in 1991 became a hermit in the Pyrenees, but Aczel is less convincing when he draws simplistic parallels between advances in mathematics and modern art. While always readable, this diffuse narrative (including chapters on Bourbaki's influence on anthropology and linguistics) strains to pull its disparate parts into a satisfactory whole. (Oct. 10) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Aczel, a visiting scholar at Harvard, mathematician, and author of popular scientific books (Fermat's Last Theorem), examines the mystique behind the Bourbaki movement. In 1934, a small group of mostly French mathematicians met to reinvent a new math based on a pedagogy of rigorous proofs, clarity, and logical thinking. The group invented a fictitious persona, "Nicolas Bourbaki," as a pseudonym under which to author their collective work. Presenting the fascinating story behind the publication of over 40 tomes collectively titled l ments de math matique, Aczel describes the group's cultural context, eccentricities, informal rules, and practices of engagement and offers biographical sketches of such influential members as Andr Weil and Alexandre Grothendieck. Writing in an accessible, conversational style that excludes mathematical proofs, Aczel paints a clear picture of the Bourbaki movement and how it has influenced the way mathematics should be discussed and learned. Suitable for undergraduate libraries and all mathematicians. Ian Gordon, Brock Univ. Lib., St. Catharines, Ont. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The greatest mathematician of the 20th century was actually a committee. Science popularizer Aczel (Chance, 2004, etc.) begins with a mystery: the voluntary disappearance in 1991 of Alexandre Grothendieck, a leading French mathematician. The author surveys Grothendieck's childhood in a concentration camp in Nazi-occupied France, then shifts to the careers of several other French mathematicians active before WWII. The common thread in their lives is Nicolas Bourbaki, a fictional mathematician under whose name the most influential work of the modern era was published. Bourbaki was, in reality, a group that first met in December 1934 in Paris, believing that math needed to be rebuilt from its foundations, starting with the fundamentals of set theory. Although there were always acknowledged leaders, beginning with Andr‚ Weil, decisions were made collectively. Bourbaki's members shouted each other down and argued vehemently over every detail of the work in progress. Miraculously, this chaotic methodology produced brilliant results. Bourbaki's insistence on rigor and its emphasis on structure revolutionized the way math was taught. The "new math" that swept through schools in the 1960s was a Bourbaki creation. Likewise, as Aczel points out at length, the "structural" movement in philosophy, science and the arts derives from the Bourbaki approach, especially as adopted by Claude L‚vi-Strauss, to whom Weil taught the mathematics that would underpin his anthropological studies. For four decades, the best young French-and, increasingly, foreign-mathematicians were recruited into the group, and its influence was unmatched. Grothendieck, most brilliant of the latter-day members, eventually took mathbeyond the reach of set theory, at which point he left Bourbaki, and the group began its decline. But as Aczel shows, it had left an indelible stamp on mathematics and on the world at large. A fascinating topic, despite the author's sometimes plodding approach.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780786732883
Publisher:
Basic Books
Publication date:
04/29/2009
Sold by:
Hachette Digital, Inc.
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
256
File size:
789 KB

Meet the Author

Amir D. Aczel, a visiting scholar in the history of science at Harvard, earned both his B.A. in mathematics and master of sciences degree from the University of California at Berkeley, and a Ph.D. from the University of Oregon. His books have been translated into fifteen languages. He lives outside Boston.

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