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 had published articles in international journals, and his textbooks were a must-read. However, his request was strongly rejected for one reason only: Nicolas Bourbaki did not exist.
Two decades earlier, mathematics was a mess. Many established mathematicians lost their lives in World War I, and the field had become fragmented.
Different branches have used a different methodology to pursue their own goals. And the lack of a common mathematical language made it difficult to share or expand their work.
Although it does not exist, it was “born” in the 1930s
In 1934, a group of French mathematicians they said they were fed up with the situation. And it all started in time, studying at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, when they found the textbook for their computer class so disjointed that they decided to write a better version.
The group quickly gathered new members, and as the project grew, so did their ambition. The result was “Élements de mathématique”, a treatise that sought to create a consistent logical framework and unite each branch of mathematics.
The text began with a set of simple axioms – laws and assumptions that he would use to construct his argument. From there, its authors derived increasingly complex theorems that corresponded to fieldwork.
But in order to truly reveal a common ground, the group needed to identify consistent rules that apply to a wide range of issues. To achieve this, they gave new and clear definitions of some of the most important mathematical topics, including functions.
This rebellious band of scholars casually ignored conventional wisdom. They knew they were revolutionizing the field, and they wanted to mark the occasion with the biggest stunt to date.
They decided to publish “Élements de mathématique” and all their subsequent works under a collective pseudonym: Nicolas Bourbaki.
Nicolas Bourbaki led a very complex fictional life
Over the next two decades, Bourbaki publications became standard references. And the members of the group took their prank as seriously as their work.
The mathematician they invented he claimed to be an exclusive Russian genius who would meet only with his selected collaborators.
To make everything look real, the scientists sent telegrams on behalf of Bourbaki, announced his daughter’s wedding, and even made him publicly insult anyone who doubted his existence.
In 1968, when they could no longer maintain the farce, the group ended their joke in the only way they could: they printed Bourbaki’s obituary, complete with math puns.
Despite his apparent death, the group named after Bourbaki still lives today.
Although not associated with any major findings, Bourbaki’s influence informs much current research. While Nicolas Bourbaki was an imaginary character, his legacy is truly real.