By Catarina Dutilh Novaes
Alexander Grothendieck, who is viewed by many as the greatest mathematician of the 20th century, has passed away yesterday after years of living in total reclusion. (To be honest, I did not even know he was still alive!) He was a key figure in the development of the modern theory of algebraic geometry, among others, but to philosophers and logicians he is perhaps best known as one of the major forces behind the establishment of category theory as a new foundational framework for mathematics.
So far, I’ve only seen obituaries in French (Libération and Le Monde), as Grothendieck (of German origin) lived almost all of his life in France (I expect that soon obituaries in English will be available too). His life story is almost as remarkable as his mathematical achievements: his father died in Auschwitz in 1942, while he was sent to a concentration camp in France with his mother. In all of his adult life, he was as passionate about pacifism as he was about mathematics (and perhaps even more), and continuously engaged in a number of activist initiatives like lecturing on category theory in a forrest of bombed Vietnam to protest against the war. He seems to have basically stopped doing any mathematics in the 1970s, but the influence of his work in the field is bound to remain colossal in many years or even centuries to come.