Alexander Grothendieck (born March 28 1928 in Berlin), is one of the leading mathematicians of the twentieth century, with monumental contributions to functional analysis and then to algebraic geometry. He won the Fields Medal in 1966.
Born to Jewish parents, he was a displaced person during much of his childhood due to the upheavals of World War II. His father, a revolutionary named Shapiro, died in Auschwitz. With his mother, Hanka Grothendieck, Alexander survived in Vichy France. After the war, young Grothendieck studied mathematics in France, initially at Montpellier; he came to Paris in 1948. He wrote his dissertation under Laurent Schwartz in functional analysis, from 1950. He was at this time a leading expert in the theory of topological vector spaces. However he set this subject aside by 1957 in order to work in algebraic geometry and homological algebra.
Homological methods and sheaf theory had already been introduced in algebraic geometry by Jean Leray and by Jean-Pierre Serre, but Grothendieck took them to a higher level. Among his insights, he shifted attention from the study of varieties to pairs of varieties related by a morphism, allowing a great generalization of many classical theorems such as the Riemann-Roch theorem (already recently generalized to higher dimension by Hirzebruch); the introduction of non-closed points, which led to the theory of schemes; and the systematic use of nilpotents. His work is at a higher level of abstraction than prior versions of algebraic geometry, but due to its great power his theory of schemes has become established as the best foundations for this important field. The bulk of Grothendieck's published work is collected in the monumental, and yet incomplete, Elements de geometrie algebrique (EGA) and Seminaire de geometrie algebrique (SGA).
Perhaps Grothendieck's deepest accomplishment is the invention of the etale and l-adic cohomology theories, which explain an observation of André Weil's, that there is a deep connection between the topological characteristics of a variety and its diophantine (number theoretic) properties. For example, the number of solutions of an equation over a finite field reflects the topological nature of its solutions over the complex numbers. Weil realized that to prove such a connection one needed a new cohomology theory, but neither he nor any other expert saw how to do this until such a theory was found by Grothendieck. This program culminated in the proofs of the Weil conjectures by Grothendieck's student Pierre Deligne in the early 1970's after Grothendieck had withdrawn from mathematics.
Grothendieck's radical left-wing and pacifist politics were doubtless born of his wartime experiences. He gave lectures on category theory in the forests surrounding Hanoi while the city was being bombed, to protest against the Vietnam war. He retired from scientific life around 1970, citing objections to the funding of research (see pp. xii and xiii of SGA1, Springer Lecture Notes 224). He returned to academics a few years later as a professor at the University of Montpellier, where he stayed until his retirement in 1988. His criticisms of the scientific community are also contained in a letter written in 1988, in which he states the reasons for his refusal of the Crafoord Prize.
While not publishing mathematical research in conventional ways during this period, he produced several influential manuscripts with limited distribution, with both mathematical and biographical content. The 2000 page manuscript Récoltes et Semailles is now available on the internet in the French original, and an English translation is underway. His Esquisse d'un programme is a proposal for a position at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, which he held from 1984 to his retirement. In La Clef des Songes he explains how he came to be convinced of God's existence.
He is said to now live in the Pyrenees, a Buddhist, and to entertain no visitors. Other rumors have him live in Ardèche (in the Massif Central mountains), to be herding goats and entertaining radical ecological theories. Though he has been inactive for many years, he remains one of the greatest and most influential mathematicians of modern times.