Gem from GK Chesterton

"A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it."

From The Everlasting Man

Monday, January 5, 2009

Nicolas Bourbaki: The Greatest Mathematician who NEVER Lived

Nicolas Bourbaki is the greatest mathematician who NEVER lived.  He produced outstanding advances in set theory, algebra, and topology among many others. Bourbaki published 40 volumes of work. Though he waxed and waned, he was a steady contributor for 50 years after the 1930s, especially in France.  But he's never drawn breath or put pencil to paper.  He never existed.

In fact, Nicolas Bourbaki wasn't a mathematician.  He was a conspiracy.

I'm not a mathematician, but I'm interested in math.  And I'm not paranoid, but I'm partial to my share of conspiracies (and I don't care if they are watching me!)  So that makes him my kind of historical figure and, apart from Newton,  Nicolas Bourbaki stands as my favorite math guy. 

He was invented in the 1930's by five students who wanted to rewrite the standard math text under the cloak of secrecy! [Insert the sound of the Twilight Zone here].   They operated for years, publishing under a pseudonym and adopted persona.  They were highly exclusive and had rigorous standards for their approach to their work.   They recruited in secrecy.  The academic community assumed that there was some brilliant, quirky recluse operating in his own bubble and cranking out brilliant work.  Turns out there were a bunch of brilliant, quirky recluses operating in a bubble.  The ruse eventually ran its course and the final Bourbaki publication was in 1983.

The story is much better told at Planet Math.  

Because this appeals to me on so many levels, I fashioned Sir Robin Louis Baack*, the antagonist in my novel "A Body at Rest", after Nicolas Bourbaki*.    In the novel, Sir Robin is the head of an academic secret society bent on destroying Cambridge University.  Oh man, there's going to be some trouble coming from the House of Baack.  Big trouble.

The Fine Print
*Twelve bonus points to you if you figured out that these two are anagrams (leaving out the "sir").   No, wait.  I'm just giving ten bonus points.  I mean, come on!  They have all the same letters in their names, just rearranged...Hey now!  Don't get snippy with me.  I'll knock it down to 8 points.  I will.** 

**I mean it.


  1. How the heck did I miss this yesterday? Perhaps my brain is faltering in my old age (I'm 41, but it's not the years...). I'm interested in math, but I don't recall being particularly interested in mathmeticians unless they did something useful with it. Theoretical math mostly gives me a headache.

    I had never heard of this nonfellow and I think it's a BRILLIANT premise for a book. I'm glad you're doing it because I'm kind of up to my eyeballs in story ideas I'm already working.

  2. It was a late post that I secretly snuck in. And, it seems, my plot worked! Bwahahaha!

    Thanks for the back pat on the story idea. Little Scooby snacks like that keep me moving, especially in this late editing stage.

  3. EVERYONE hates editing. I went through and reedited/majorly rewrote my "finished" novel like two or three times, not counting the many "little" go throughs.

    I'm hoping my soon-to-be completed second novel doesn't need the same level of rework, but I've reworked the first part of it twice already and I haven't even finished it.

    Hang in there.

  4. Do you have the first book published? Of course I'll need the Amazon link to it. Come on!


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