The mathematician who never existed

Mathematics, the scourge to students everywhere, be it high school or colleges. The study of the measurement, properties, and relationships of quantities and sets, using numbers and symbols. Mathematics includes the study of such topics as quantity, structure, space, and change. It has no generally accepted definition. Mathematicians seek and use patterns to formulate new conjectures. One of the most influential mathematicians of all time was Nicolas Bourbaki, who completely revolutionized the field of mathematics. However, when Nicolas Bourbaki applied to the American Mathematical Society in the 1950s, he was already one of the most influential mathematicians of his time. He’d published articles in international journals and his textbooks were required reading. Yet his application was firmly rejected for one simple reason: Nicolas Bourbaki did not exist.

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Bourbaki had published articles in international journals and his textbooks were mandatory reading for any budding mathematician. Two decades before this application, the mathematical world was in complete disarray, many mathematicians had lost their lives in the first word war thus making the field fragmented. Different branches used disparate methodology to pursue their own goals and this lack of a shared mathematical language made it difficult to share and expand work. Thus in 1934, a group of fed up French mathematicians were particularly fed up and started a journey which would change the mathematical field in a way no one had imagined. While studying in the prestigious Ecole normale superieure, they found their books so disjointed that they decided to write a better one. The small group soon took up new member and as the project grew so did their ambition. The result was “Elements de mathematique”, a treatise that sought to create a consistent logical framework unifying all branches of mathematics. The text began with a set of simple axioms – laws and assumptions it would use to build its argument. From there its authors derived more and more complex theorems that corresponded with work done across each field. But to truly reveal common ground, the group needed to identify consistent rules that applied to a wide range of problems. To accomplish this, they gave new, clear definitions to some of the most important mathematical objects, including the Function.  It was believed that functions were like machines an input was given which in turn gave an output. But they sought to think functions as bridges between two groups, which made them formulate logical relationship between their domains. Thus, the group began to define functions by how they mapped elements across domains. This allowed mathematicians to establish logic that could be translated across the function’s domains in both directions. Their systematic approach was in stark contrast to the belief that math was an intuitive science, and an over-dependence on logic constrained creativity. But this rebellious band of scholars gleefully ignored conventional wisdom. They were revolutionizing the field and to mark the occasion they pulled their greatest stunt yet. They published their work under the collective pseudonym of Nicolas Bourbaki. Over the next two decades the publications became standard references and the group took their prank as seriously as work. They gave their Russian reclusive character due diligence, by sending telegrams announcing his “daughter’s wedding” and publicly insulting anyone who doubted his existence. In 1968, when they could no longer maintain the ruse, the group ended the prank in the best possible way, they printed out his obituary full of mathematical puns. Despite his “death”, his legacy lives on today.

Like Aristotle said “No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness.” And these certainly were geniuses who pulled the greatest scholarly prank ever.