"To state it in slightly different terms: in those critical years [roughly from age 17 to 20] I learned how to be alone."
"This formulation doesn't really capture my meaning. I didn't, in any literal sense learn to be alone, for the simple reason that this knowledge had never been unlearned during my childhood. It is a basic capacity in all of us from the day of our birth. However these 3 years of work in isolation, when I was thrown onto my own resources, following guidelines which I myself had spontaneously invented, instilled in me a strong degree of confidence, unassuming yet enduring, in my ability to do mathematics, which owes nothing to any consensus or to the fashions which pass as law...."
"By this I mean to say: to reach out in my own way to the things I wished to learn, rather than relying on the notions of the consensus, overt or tacit, coming from a more or less extended clan of which I found myself a member, or which for any other reason laid claim to be taken as an authority. This silent consensus had informed me, both at the lyé and at the university, that one shouldn't bother worrying about what was really meant when using a term like "volume", which was "obviously self-evident", "generally known", "unproblematic", etc. I'd gone over their heads, almost as a matter of course, even as Lesbesgue himself had, several decades before, gone over their heads. It is in this gesture of "going beyond", to be something in oneself rather than the pawn of a consensus, the refusal to stay within a rigid circle that others have drawn around one - it is in this solitary act that one finds true creativity. All others things follow as a matter of course."
Very late in his life, Grothendieck asked for people to cease re-publishing his work, even brief excerpts. (See: http://sbseminar.wordpress.com/2010/02/09/grothendiecks-lett... ) So I have mixed feelings about quoting the above. But I do so in the hope that it can help others as it has helped me.
I think Grothendeick used Mathematics as a way to rebel against/escape from the world he grew up in. It was a formal discipline that could provide concrete results, unlike the mundance political arguing and nonsense that he commonly saw elsewhere controlling the world. But, I bet as he grew older he noticed that even his very own mathematical work could be used in mundane academic political nonsense. Thus, a disenchantment with everything ensued leading to a total isolationist viewpoint.
It's unfortunate his disillusionment led him to leave math completely, and slowly retreat out of society, and probably to develop the mental illness that dominated his later life. A while ago I found some of his writings from the post-math era online, I wonder if they're still around. Strange stuff, all about hermaphroditic angels and his personal beliefs?
We have lost a truly unique and incredible human being, but I'm not sure he would appreciate me saying that "we" lost anything.
People will quickly judge you as a bad person if you don't want to give your work for the greater good of humanity and science, however, for a person that's outside the field it's easy to overlook the many things (not neccesarily related to science itself) that a scientist has to deal with.
Science, like all profession, has its own demons and bad times, and how do you cope with those is a fundamental skill that you have to develop in order to be able to, well, do science.
Anyway, a little off-topic but I wanted to say that I sympathize with the guy and I think that he has all the right to ask the community to stop sharing their ideas, just as anyone has all the right to come up with their own ideas and decide to share them or not.
You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
I think he devoted himself to nuclear disarmament and became disillusioned by the fact that his peers did not take the issue seriously.