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“Taking Nicolas Bourbaki Personally: How the most intriguing mathematician in modern history tried (and failed, twice) to join the American Mathematical Society.”

Thursday, February 11 @ 3:30pm – SCP 117
Michael J. Barany – Princeton University

Nicolas Bourbaki is widely considered one of the most influential mathematicians of the twentieth century, and is arguably the most intriguing mathematician in modern history. Part of his intrigue comes from the fact that while Bourbaki was a prolific author and had a strong personality and sense of humor, he did not (unlike most mathematicians) have a birth certificate, a passport, or even a body, having been born instead as the collective enterprise of a radical group of French mathematicians in the 1930s. Bourbaki tried twice in the late 1940s to join the American Mathematical Society, and was unsuccessful in both attempts. I will characterize Bourbaki’s life and times in the context of the rapidly transforming global mathematics community in the mid-twentieth century. A central question was Bourbaki’s status as an individual person, collective institution, or something (or someone!) in between. I will thus explain what it meant to take Bourbaki personally, and why that mattered to a changing mathematical discipline.