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Math Trek

Founder of the Secret Society of Mathematicians

Henri Cartan, one of the leaders of a revolution in mathematics, dies at 104

5:12pm, August 29, 2008

In the 1930s, a group of young French mathematicians led an uprising that revolutionized mathematics. France had lost most of a generation in the First World War, so the emerging hotshots in mathematics had few elders to look up to. And when these radicals did look up, they didn’t like what they saw. The practice of mathematics at the time was dry, scattered and muddled, they believed, in need of reinvention and invigoration.

So they took up arms: pens and typewriters. Using the nom de plume “Nicolas Bourbaki” (after a dead Napoleonic general), they wrote a series of textbooks laying out mathematics the right way. Though the young mathematicians started out only intending to write a good textbook for analysis (essentially an advanced form of calculus), they ended up creating dozens of volumes which formed a manifesto for a new philosophy of mathematics.

The last of the founders of Bourbaki,

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