Nicolas Bourbaki, perhaps the biggest inside joke in mathematics


If you've studied advanced mathematics, you've certainly read or at least heard about the books and papers of the great French mathematician Nicolas Bourbaki, whose works in the 1930's set out a rigorous formulation of modern mathematics. Except he never actually existed. The name was created as a front for a group of renegade French mathematicians who were reacting to Poincaré's intuitive approach.

In modern graph theory, I'm told that it is fashionable to publish one's results under false names. For example, the graph theorist G. W. Peck was actually a collaboration of the mathematicians Ronald Graham, Douglas West, George Purdy, the legendary Paul Erdős, Fan Chung, and Daniel Kleitman. (Take the initials of the members' last names.) I learned from Dr. West that the group did not include him originally, and they were prepared to publish under the name "G. Peck", listing the author's address as Hollywood, California. With the addition of a new member, the name changed to "G. W. Peck", which to the group's pleasant surprise happened to be the name of a United States Congressman from the 19th century, which gave them the opportunity to include a photograph and a short biography that ended with something like "After retiring from Congress, Peck returned to his first love: graph theory."

Comments (7)
  1. Bob Smithe says:

    Ahem. Permit me…

    Neeeeeeerd!

  2. lynnlangit says:

    Well, that makes me a SUPER nerd then, since I read (and enjoyed) an entire book about Nicolas Bourbaki — http://www.amazon.com/Artist-Mathematician-Nicolas-Bourbaki-Existed/dp/1560259310

  3. Pierre Fermat says:

    And of course there’s the Alpher-Bethe-Gamow paper in astrophysics. It’s a real paper, even though Mr. Bethe was conscripted into being an author and the results were first announced on April 1st.

  4. SM says:

    llangit:

    >>Well, that makes me a SUPER nerd then, since I

    >>read (and enjoyed) an entire book about Nicolas

    >>Bourbaki —

    >>http://www.amazon.com/Artist-Mathematician-Nicolas-Bourbaki-Existed/dp/1560259310

    Amazon Presents: Misleading URL’s, part 1!  The actual title of the Book is, "The Artist and the Mathematician: The Story of Nicolas Bourbaki, the Genius Mathematician Who Never Existed"

  5. James says:

    Having a photograph is a nice touch, I think; at my old university, for student elections every race included an option for ‘RON’ (Re Open Nominations, basically ‘they all suck, keep the post open and try to find someone else’). Each candidate had a photograph beside their name; RON’s was Ronald McDonald.

    I must admit, though, the idea of a Congressman – or any other politician – even being able to *spell* graph theory, let alone understand it, seems pretty far fetched…

  6. AHodsdon says:

    My favorite example of a mathematical pseudonym is "A. Student" who invented the "Student T" distribution. In reality, it was William Sealy Gosset of the Guinness Brewery:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Sealy_Gosset

    Apparently, Guinness took a dim view of employees discussing trade secrets, so Gosset had to publish his papers incognito.

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