A member of the Nicolas Bourbaki circle, André Weil advanced studies of mathematics in a variety of areas, including algebraic geometry, group theory, and number theory. Considered one of the twentieth century's preeminent mathematicians, Weil in 1980 received Columbia University's Barnard Medal, whose past recipients include Albert Einstein (1879- 1955) and Niels Bohr (1885-1962).
Weil was born on May 6, 1906, in Paris, the son of Bernard, a physician, and Selma Reinherz Weil, Jewish parents who no longer observed Jewish traditions. Weil's sister Simone would later become famous as a member of the French Resistance in World War II. Weil himself proved a mathematical prodigy, reading geometry for fun at age eight and solving difficult problems by the age of nine. During World War I, Weil's father was drafted into the medical service, and the family followed him to various posts around France.
Weil entered the prestigious Ecole Normale Supériere at age 16, and earned his doctorate there at age 22 in 1928. From 1930 to 1932, he taught at Aligarh Muslim University in India, returning to France and a post as professor of mathematics at the University of Strasbourg. In 1937 he was married, and two years later, he was in Finland when World War II began.
Weil refused to return to military service in France, maintaining that he could best serve as a mathematician; but through a series of mishaps, the Finns—whose country was then under attack by Stalin's troops—mistook him for a Soviet spy. This very nearly led to his execution, but instead he was returned to France and a trial. The outcome was that he had to go fight, but in the confusion attending the Nazi invasion of his homeland, he and his wife Eveline fled the country.
After holding professorships at a number of universities in America and Brazil (during which time a daughter, Sylvie, was born), in 1947 Weil was invited to take a position at the University of Chicago. By then he had long since made a name for himself, first with his theory of "uniform space," which the Science News Letter dubbed one of the most important mathematical discoveries of 1939. Uniform space, a mathematical construct, bears little resemblance to three-dimensional space, and indeed is beyond the power of intuition to apprehend.
Another difficult concept with which Weil grappled was what came to be known as "Weil conjectures." These were formulas in algebraic geometry that provided the numbers of solutions to equations in a finite field. Decades later, Weil's advances in geometry and algebra would find a variety of applications in fields as diverse as Hollywood special-effects technology and computer modeling of black holes by astronomers. Weil was also involved with the Nicolas Bourbaki group, a circle of more than a dozen mostly French mathematicians, from the 1930s onward. Among the innovations associated with "Nicolas Bourbaki" (a collective pseudonym) was the development of what came to be called the "new math" when it was introduced in American schools during the late 1960s and thereafter.
Weil taught at Chicago until 1958, when he went to work at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study. In 1976, he retired. He received a wide array of awards and honors, ranging from a fellowship at the Royal Society of London in 1966 to the Wolf Prize in 1979 to the Kyoto Prize in Japan in 1994. He died in Princeton on August 6, 1998.