#SQUADGOALS (46)

By: Jordan Ellenberg
November 15, 2017

One in a series of enthusiastic posts, contributed by HILOBROW friends and regulars during 2017, on the subject of our favorite squads.

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Meeting of the Bourbaki Group, 1935. (L to r) Henri Cartan, Rene de Possel, Jean Dieudonne, Andre Weil and a lab technician; seated (L to R) Mirles, Claude Chevalley and Szolem Mandelbrojt.

I got my first Bourbaki book when I was in high school, from a math teacher of mine. I didn’t really understand why the book was presented to me with such gravity. I didn’t really understand why it was presented to me at all, since it was in French, a language I didn’t know, and about mathematics I wasn’t at all ready to understand.

Even what I thought I understood — that Bourbaki was a famous French mathematician — was wrong. Bourbaki wasn’t a person, though it was Bourbaki’s practice to pretend to be a person. Bourbaki was a clique of mathematicians who, dissatisfied with the standard textbooks used in French universities, decided to write their own. But the right way. Everything completely from scratch. No terms or entities allowed in the books except those defined precisely in earlier pages. And Bourbaki defined itself, not exactly as a person but as a single collective sensibility into which these contentious and ego-heavy humans submerged themselves. Contemporary accounts record that the Bourbakists — Henri Cartan, Jean Dieudonné, André Weil — had fun together, quarreled fervently, told jokes. It’s all absent from the books, which have a kind of anti-personality, a taste so refined it claims not to be a taste.

It’s thrillingly austere. Or mind-crushingly pedantic and abstract. Both reactions are reasonable, and both are popular. But the latter is more popular.

There was a wonderfully mad time, a few decades back, when we thought Bourbakism was for everyone, and reshaped school mathematics in France and America in its light. In the US it was called the “New Math.” Why tell a first-grader the rules of arithmetic when they could instead be guided through the derivation of those rules from first principles?

New Math enraged parents and was abandoned. Like a glacier it left scattered reminders behind. Bourbakism is why you know what Venn diagrams and one-to-one correspondences are.

Few mathematicians are true Bourbakists any more. We like intuition and messiness too much. But the official presence of the Bourbaki ideal gives us a common ground to stand on. Bourbaki was not a person, but we can all, when we need to, impersonate Bourbaki.

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#SQUADGOALS: Annie Nocenti on THE WILD BUNCH | Alice Boone on PRETTY LITTLE LIARS | Gordon Dahlquist on BOWIE’S BAND | Rob Wringham on THE HOME GUARD | Jennifer Krasinski on WATERSHIP DOWN RABBITS | Annalee Newitz on ROBIN HOOD’S MERRY PALS | Adrienne Crew on THE BLOOMSBURY GROUP | Mark Kingwell on THE HONG KONG CAVALIERS | Adam McGovern on KAMANDI’S FAMILY | John Overholt on THE CLUB | Greg Rowland on THE VULTURE SQUADRON | Sara Ryan on BETSY, TACY & TIB | Chelsey Johnson on VI ÄR BÄST! | Brian Berger on THE JOHN FORD STOCK COMPANY | Sherri Wasserman on THE WARRIORS | Jessamyn West on FAREYNIKTE PARTIZANER ORGANIZATSYE | Josh Glenn on DADA | Matthew De Abaitua on THE TIME | Mandy Keifetz on THE FOUNDING FATHERS | William Nericcio on ZOOT SUIT PACHUCOS | Deb Chachra on FIREFLY CREW | Matthew Battles on THE ANIMAL FAMILY | Ingrid Schorr on THE HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS | Joe Alterio on THE USUAL GANG OF IDIOTS | Dan Reines on THE BREAKFAST CLUB | Rob Walker on LES TROIS INSÉPARABLES | Devin McKinney on 1975 RED SOX | Steph Burt on DAMAGE CONTROL | Elina Shatkin on THE HOLOGRAMS | Chris Spurgeon on THE ALKALI METALS | Carl Wilson on NEW YORK SCHOOL POETS | Barbara Bogaev on THE MOD SQUAD | Franklin Bruno on THE AACM | Judith Zissman on THE FUTURIANS | Mimi Zeiger on ARCHIGRAM | Jacob Mikanowski on THE RATBASTARDS | Lynn Peril on THE DALY SISTERS | Anindita Basu Sempere on MEG MURRY’S FAMILY | Libi Rose on THE ENIAC TEAM | Gary Panter on THE TRIBE OF HIPPIES | Peter Doyle on CORNEL WILDE BOYS | Ken Layne on THE MONKEY WRENCH GANG | Molly Wright Steenson on BAUHAUS | Katie Hennessey on BEAT POETS | Mimi Lipson on THE RUNAWAYS | Jordan Ellenberg on BOURBAKI | Michael Campochiaro on THE SUICIDE SQUAD | Deborah Wassertzug on THE BLOODHOUND GANG | Colin Dickey on ACÉPHALE | Douglas Wolk on SEVEN SOLDIERS OF VICTORY | David Smay on THE MYSTIC KNIGHTS OF THE OINGO BOINGO | Karinne Keithley Syers on BLACKLIPS PERFORMANCE CULT.

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