Here I found the following quote, attributed to the great Grothendieck:

Since then I’ve had the chance in the world of mathematics that bid me welcome, to meet quite a number of people, both among my “elders” and among young people in my general age group who were more brilliant, much more ‘gifted’ than I was. I admired the facility with which they picked up, as if at play, new ideas, juggling them as if familiar with them from the cradle–while for myself I felt clumsy, even oafish, wandering painfully up an arduous track, like a dumb ox faced with an amorphous mountain of things I had to learn (so I was assured) things I felt incapable of understanding the essentials or following through to the end. Indeed, there was little about me that identified the kind of bright student who wins at prestigious competitions or assimilates almost by sleight of hand, the most forbidding subjects.

In fact, most of these comrades who I gauged to be more brilliant than I have gone on to become distinguished mathematicians. Still from the perspective or thirty or thirty five years, I can state that their imprint upon the mathematics of our time has not been very profound. They’ve done all things, often beautiful things in a context that was already set out before them, which they had no inclination to disturb. Without being aware of it, they’ve remained prisoners of those invisible and despotic circles which delimit the universe of a certain milieu in a given era. To have broken these bounds they would have to rediscover in themselves that capability which was their birthright, as it was mine: The capacity to be alone.

Did he really said this? It seems very ironical, since Grothendieck is generally known as a genius, who was one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century.

Could you attest the authenticity of this quote? The website I linked to where I found this quote gives as a source Récoltes et Semailles. I can't understand french, and would be really thankful if someone of you could check if Grothendieck really wrote what is quoted above.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Yes, that's should be written in Récoltes et Semailles; I'll try to dig up somthing. And while there is certainly a good dose of self-depreciation there, I do think it is not only this. There are different ways to be a "genius" and among the "greatest mathematicians of the 20th century." $\endgroup$
    – quid
    Commented Aug 26, 2016 at 18:16

1 Answer 1


Yes, the quote is essentially authentic. This is from a typeset version "Récoltes et Semailles", specfically from "2.2 L’importance d’être seul." (To find the document online should be possible without much trouble, I do not link it here, as I am not aware of a stable location.)

Par la suite, j’ai eu l’occasion, dans ce monde des mathématiciens qui m’accueillait, de rencontrer bien des gens, aussi bien des aînés que des jeunes gens plus ou moins de mon âge, qui visiblement étaient beaucoup plus brillants, beaucoup plus "doués" que moi. Je les admirais pour la facilité avec laquelle ils apprenaient, comme en se jouant, des notions nouvelles, et jonglaient avec comme s’ils les connaissaient depuis leur berceau - alors que je me sentais lourd et pataud, me frayant un chemin péniblement, comme une taupe, à travers une montagne informe de choses qu’il était important (m’assurait-on) que j’apprenne, et dont je me sentais incapable de saisir les tenants et les aboutissants. En fait, je n’avais rien de l’étudiant brillant, passant haut la main les concours prestigieux, assimilant en un tournemain des programmes prohibitifs.

La plupart de mes camarades plus brillants sont d’ailleurs devenus des mathématiciens compétents et réputés. Pourtant, avec le recul de trente ou trente-cinq ans, je vois qu’ils n’ont pas laissé sur la mathématique de notre temps une empreinte vraiment profonde. Ils ont fait des choses, des belles choses parfois, dans un contexte déjà tout fait, auquel ils n’auraient pas songé à toucher. Ils sont restés prisonniers sans le savoir de ces cercles invisibles et impérieux, qui délimitent un Univers dans un milieu et à une époque donnée. Pour les franchir, il aurait fallu qu’ils retrouvent en eux cette capacité qui était leur à leur naissance, tout comme elle était mienne : la capacité d’être seul.

As far as I can tell the English text is pretty much just a translation of this. There are some parts were it deviates in a minor way. Either there are slightly different versions, or the translation is just a bit free.

In particular the "dump ox" comes from "une taupe", which is a mole not an ox, and "despotic" comes from "impérieux," and the translation seems a bit on the negative end to me, I think "ruling", "domineering", or "imperious" could also have been used.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.