Like many fellow mathematicians, I was very sad to hear the news that Alexander Grothendieck passed away yesterday. The word “genius” is overused; or rather, does not possess sufficiently fine gradations. I know quite a few mathematical geniuses, but Grothendieck was a singularity. His ideas were so original, so profound, and so revolutionary – and he had so many of them! – that I will not even attempt to summarize his contributions to mathematics here. Rather, I thought that I would share some of my favorite passages from the fascinating Grothendieck-Serre Correspondence, published in a bilingual edition by the AMS and SMF. They illuminate in brief flashes what made Grothendieck so extraordinary — but also human. They also illustrate how influential Serre was on Grothendieck’s mathematical development. Before I begin, here is a quote from another wonderful book, Alexander Grothendieck: A Mathematical Portrait, edited by Leila Schneps:
…the features which constitute in some sense his personal mathematical signature… are very familiar to those who know Grothendieck’s work: the search for maximum generality, the focus on the harmonious aspects of structure, the lack of interest in special cases, the transfer of attention from objects themselves to morphisms between them, and—perhaps most appealingly—Grothendieck’s unique approach to difficulties that consisted in turning them, somehow, upside down, and making them into the actual central point and object of study, an attitude which has the power to subtly change them from annoying obstacles into valuable tools that actually help solve problems and prove theorems… Of course, Grothendieck also possessed tremendous technical prowess, not even to mention a capacity for work that led him to concentrate on mathematics for upward of sixteen hours a day in his prime, but those are not the elements that characterize the magic in his style. Rather, it was the absolute simplicity (in his own words, “nobody before me had stooped so low”) and the total freshness and fearlessness of his vision, seemingly unaffected by long-established views and vantage points, that made Grothendieck who he was.