This article goes something like this:

In a discussion with Grothendieck, Messing mentioned the formula expressing the integral of $\exp(-x^2)$ in terms of $\pi$, which is proved in every calculus course. Not only did Grothendieck not know the formula, but he thought that he had never seen it in his life.

But how does a great mathematician like Grothendieck hear nothing about the Gaussian integral? How is it possible to explain this?

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    $\begingroup$ Note that this is a collection of anecdotes labeled "apocryphal" for a reason, it is not even mentioned when the Messing incident happened. However, it is well-known that Grothendieck's background was spotty, and he was often ignorant of work done by his mathematical predecessors, e.g. he reinvented measure theory before learning about Lebesgue. See Jackson's biography. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Commented May 7, 2017 at 21:30

1 Answer 1


It is an apocraphal story, so it's difficult to know just how much credence one should place on it. There is a similar story of when Grothendieck was asked to give a prime number, he suggested 57 - which isn't prime.

These stories may have been true but they equally may not have been true. What they're pointing to is a mismatch between Grothendiecks heavily abstract mathematics and the nuts and bolts of the everyday maths that we use.


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