Pierre Emile Jean Cartier


Born: 10 June 1932 in Sedan, Ardennes, France

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Pierre Cartier's parents were Jean Cartier, who was a medical representative, and Yvonne Suran who was the headmistress of a Lycée. Cartier wrote of his family in [1]:-

The second or third or fourth generation in any family or any social group follows definite sociological patterns. My own family was typical. My grandfather was a self-made man, a very successful businessman. My father and my uncle went into the business, but they were not so devoted to the fight. And people in my generation - well, I suppose I made the right decision not to engage in it. Indeed, people in my generation who did go into our family business did not do so well, because they didn't have anything to fight for.

Pierre was born in Sedan, a small city in northeastern France near the Belgium border. When Pierre was eight years old the town was destroyed during the German invasion of France in World War II. The war years, and those immediately after, was an extremely difficult time for the young boy to grow up and receive his education. He attended the Collège Turenne in Sedan and he spoke in [1] about his experiences there:-

I had been a student in a very provincial, very outdated high school. Some of my teachers were very good but of course they were very far away from modern science. The mathematics I was taught was classical geometry, in the uncultivated, synthetic way. I did have the luck to have an imaginative teacher in physics, and so at first I wanted to by a physicist.

In order to prepare for entry into the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, Cartier left Sedan and went to Paris where he attended the Lycée Saint-Louis [1]:-

I took private lessons in physics from a very peculiar teacher, Pierre Aigrain.

Cartier entered the École Normale Supérieure in 1950 where Henri Cartan was his professor of mathematics and he also attended courses by Laurent Schwartz. However he suggested that the education he received there was old fashioned to say the least [1]:-

Usually a bright student completes the program in two years, but I managed to get through it in one. But both the mathematics and the physics I was taught were totally outmoded at that time, totally. I remember that, in a course called General Physics at the Sorbonne, the professor made a solemn declaration: "Gentlemen in my class what some people call the 'atomic hypothesis' has no place." That was 1950, five years after Hiroshima! So I went to Aigrain and said, "What do I do?" and he said, "Well, of course, you have to get your degree, but I will teach you physics properly." This shows what the French university was at the time.

After completing his Agrégé de mathematique in 1951 Cartier married Monique Pissevin on 3 November; they had one daughter Marion. He continued to study at the École Normale for his doctorate on algebraic geometry which he defended in 1958. He had worked for three years, from 1954 to 1957, at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique. Cartier had been invited to a Bourbaki congress at Pelvoux, in the Alps, in June 1951 when only a first yera student at the École Normale. By 1955 he became a full member of the Bourbaki group.

Cartier spent two years from 1957 to 1959 at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in the United States. Returning to France he was appointed Professor in the faculty of Science at Strasbourg in 1961, remaining there until he moved to the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques at Bures-sur Yvette ten years later. In addition to this post he was director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique from 1974. In 1982 he left he Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques becoming a professor at the École Polytechnique (1982-88) and at the École Normale from 1988.

From his first involvement with Bourbaki in 1951, Cartier went on the become a full member in 1955 and remained associated with the group until he reached the official retiral age set by the group in 1983. He made a major contribution [1]:-

I estimate that I contributed about 200 pages a year during all this time with Bourbaki.

He also took over the role of secretary:-

After Dieudonné (and an interlude by Samuel and Dixmier) I was the secretary of Bourbaki, and it was my duty to do most of the proofreading, I think I proofread five to ten thousand pages. I have a good visual memory. I wouldn't compare myself with Dieudonné, but there was a time when I knew most of the printed material in Bourbaki.

The latter part of Cartier's career saw a surprising change of mathematical direction [1]:-

I have been personally very happy, because when I reached the time of normal retirement from Bourbaki, I had the very fortunate opportunity to be asked to deliver the lecture on behalf of Vladimir Drinfeld at the International Congress of Mathematicians at Berkeley in 1986 (Drinfeld was prevented from coming for political reasons). It was a great challenge and a great honour for me; his paper is one of the most important papers in the proceedings. Overnight that changed my mathematical life. I said, "This is what I have to do now." Of course I knew the basic material but the perspective was new. I cannot claim that within the few hours I had to prepare the lecture I could really master it, but I understood enough to explain to the people, "This is new, it is important."


Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson


A Reference (One book/article)

Some Quotations (2)

Mathematicians born in the same country

Honours awarded to Pierre Cartier
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BMC plenary speaker1975

Cross-references in MacTutor

  1. History Topics: Bourbaki: the post-war years

Other Web sites
  1. Mathematical Genealogy Project

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    JOC/EFR December 2005
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    School of Mathematics and Statistics
    University of St Andrews, Scotland
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