What happens when we meet our heroes? In an episode of Community, Troy meets his hero Levar Burton in person. Community being what it is, their meeting isn’t exactly a success. At one point Troy screams, “I just wanted a picture! You can’t disappoint a picture!”
The late mathematician Alexander Grothendieck (1928-2014) was a hero to many mathematicians, almost a mythical figure. He left an indelible mark on the field of algebraic geometry but withdrew from society completely. At the time of his death, he lived in isolation in the Pyrenees. He had even tried to have his work removed from circulation. In mathematical lore, he was a larger-than-life caricature of a strange, tortured genius.
It’s hard to imagine inviting yourself over for a chat with him. But Katrina Honigs, currently a postdoc in mathematics at the University of Utah and my officemate, did just that in 2012. At the time a Berkeley graduate student, she rented a car while attending a conference in France and drove over to Grothendieck’s house. In a recently posted essay, she writes,
"Some lights were on in the house, but there was no sign of movement when I approached the gate. I hopped easily over the fence, which was made of wood and stone and about waist-high, much more modest than it had loomed in my imaginings in the previous weeks. I stepped furtively across the slightly ramshackle yard, which had many plants and terra cotta pots in various degrees of wholeness, and walked up the steps. I knocked on the door and waited, and then I knocked again. Getting more nervous, but aware that this would likely be my only chance to meet him, I shouted “Monsieur Grothendieck!” and waited, but there was no response. Thinking of the baked goods in my bag, I called “Je vous apporte quelque chose de bon!” and then cringed as I realized that was an odd tactic, like something someone might say to entice children into a windowless van. What should one say to get Grothendieck’s attention? Maybe a new proof of a big conjecture, but I didn’t bring one. I tried calling his name a couple more times, but there was no sign that I was heard. Looking over at the windows to my right, I started to wonder how long I should stay. I had done my best to arrive at a likely time of day, about 11 am, and it occurred to me that I hadn’t decided what to do in the event that Alexander Grothendieck did not happen to be sitting right by the door, ready to greet me.
"When I looked up from my reverie, I realized that a figure with a large white beard wearing a brown robe over his clothes had appeared utterly silently quite nearby on my left."
What made a mild-mannered midwesterner trespass on the property of one of the greatest mathematicians of the twentieth century? Honigs writes, "I am driven to demystify—it is part of what motivates me to be a mathematician—and when we tell ourselves and others that our heroes are inhuman and on a pedestal that is not just high but unattainable, we are actually pushing ourselves down rather than climbing."
So what was it like to meet Alexander Grothendieck? You'll have to go to her website to find out.