How a Mathematician Who Never Existed Changed the World
Nicolas Bourbaki made exceptional contributions to mathematics — except he never existed.
In the 1930s, the world of mathematics was shattered due to the deaths of so many mathematicians in the First World War. Many mathematicians had died in that time, and it was hard for one mathematician to even find another mathematician who worked in the same field as them.
On December 10, 1934, in France, Nicolas Bourbaki was born who would later go on to become one of the greatest in the field, a Russian genius who wouldn’t appear publicly. But there is a slight problem. Nicolas Bourbaki never existed.
It was a pseudonym for a group of 7 mathematicians from different fields, originally created to improve their university textbook in analysis because they were unsatisfied by it. But they ended up doing a lot more work and developed a series of textbooks called Éléments de mathématique.
The six original members met at a cafe in Paris and decided that they would write a better textbook than the existing textbook which was a very bad one. It lacked good explanations and examples.
The idea to work under the pseudonym may have originated as a prank. Chambert-Loir, a member of the group and acted as their spokesperson said:
“There was some custom to play pranks on first-years, and one of those pranks was to pretend that some General Bourbaki would arrive and visit the school and maybe give a totally obscure talk about mathematics.”
What Did They Do?
The group set out to unify mathematics and explained various domains such as topology, algebra, geometry, functions, and many others.
They introduced their own explanations for these topics and wrote numerous articles and books. A lot of the explanations given in our current textbooks in schools were introduced by them.
At that time, mathematicians didn’t focus much on generalizing the problems, which made it harder for people to understand them. The mathematicians used to prove these theorems but never really focused on clarity.
This is where Nicolas Bourbaki comes in. They started with set theory and started to explain other concepts. The volume of it kept increasing and they re-wrote most of the mathematics at that time, giving it a structure, and leaving no stone unturned.
This contribution was huge, and although they didn’t have a particularly great contribution in a single field, their work redefined most of what was being taught.
Andrew Weil, one of the founding members of the group was fond of pranks. The group was very serious about it. They even made a baptismal certificate for their fictional character. They created his story and his origins.
Of course, Nicolas Bourbaki was a genius who didn’t meet anyone. People would write letters to him, and he’d reply. To the people who doubted if he was real, the group sent them insulting letters.
It was hilarious, and they fooled a lot of people. But the joke couldn’t last forever. They had to do something about it. So they wrote an obituary and distributed it.
Some people had already known about it a long before though. When Nicolas Bourbaki applied to the American Mathematical Society, Nicolas Bourbaki was rejected. The secretary wrote back saying he knew it was not a single person.
This harmless prank was also not so harmless. Andrew Weil was almost killed due to this prank. In 1939, Andrew Weil escaped to Finland because he didn’t want to serve in the French army. He got caught and arrested.
They found that he had a fake identity in the name of Nicolas Bourbaki. The Finnish police thought he was a Russian spy.
So, they wanted to execute him. They also found he had mathematical papers. So the Finnish police went to Rolf Nevanlinna, an official because Weil told them he knew Nevanlinna as he was a mathematician too.
Fortunately, for him, Nevanlinna confirmed he knew Weil. He told them not to execute him, and deport him to Sweden.
He was not executed but he sure was very close to being executed because of this joke.
Why Do It for Nothing?
They wanted to improve mathematics selflessly. They worked very hard for making mathematics the way it is now and didn’t even want any credit for it. They raised the standard of how proofs and theorems are written today.
It still affects us. Before they came, mathematics was something that was not meant for everyone. It was just not accessible enough. No one could understand all the tangled numbers and letters.
It’s not to say it doesn’t scare a lot of people today. But at least, to people interested, it is a beautiful tool to understand the workings of the universe.
Nicolas Bourbaki was the greatest joke in history. An influential genius who didn’t exist, and yet managed to change the world. Nicolas Bourbaki is a symbol of unity. It shows that when people come together, even the most complicated tasks become easier to do.