The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

In 2006, excitement spilled out of the mathematical community and into the world at large. Scuttlebutt had reached hoi polloi that one of the very giants of mathematics was going to refuse to accept its greatest prizes. In a world where recognition of one's peers is a large part for the reason to exist, this abnegation was nothing short of breathtaking.

Over a period of months between 2002 and 2003, Grigori Perelman had posted three papers on ArXiv that disposed of one of the outstanding problems in mathematics, the Poincare Conjecture. His solution was verified by several other topologists, and it was pretty much taken for granted that the Fields Medal in 2006 would be his for the taking.

Except that Perelman went into seclusion, refused all awards, and pretty much severed contact with his colleagues. For years since, various people tried to approach him to persuade him to return to the fold, or at least accept some tangible form of recognition or the other. He declined everything.

Marcus du Sautoy, in one of his recent TV programmes on mathematics, went to St. Petersburg, and rang Perelman's doorbell. He hoped Perelman might respond to a fellow mathematician, even if he avoided the general public or the press. Sadly, though, Perelman didn't answer the bell. His rift from the community appeared total.

Meanwhile, the Clay Institute was hoping that Perelman would accept the Millennium Prize for solving the Poincare problem, or at least state what he'd like done with the million dollars that came with the prize. Earlier this month, Perelman broke his silence. Here's what he said (in loose translation from the Russian):
I refused the prize. You know that I had many reasons to go that way or another. That is why I took so long to decide. Briefly, there was one chief reason: my opposition to the organisation of the mathematical community. I do not like their decisions, and I consider them unfair. I think that the contribution by Richard Hamilton to the solution of this problem is no less than mine.
Perelman's colleagues believe that he is completely entitled to the honour. Equally, they respect his decision not to accept the Clay Prize. William Thurston, who did so much of the foundational work on the Poincare conjecture and its generalisation, said of Perelman:
Perelman's aversion to public spectacle and to riches is mystifying to many. I have not talked to him about it and I can certainly not speak for him, but I want to say I have complete empathy and admiration for his inner strength and clarity, to be able to know and hold true to himself. Our true needs are deeper – yet in our modern society most of us reflexively and relentlessly pursue wealth, consumer goods and admiration. We have learned from Perelman's mathematics. Perhaps we should also pause to reflect on ourselves and learn from Perelman's attitude toward life.

Check out the following:

1. Sylvia Nasar, David Gruber, "Manifold Destiny", New Yorker, Aug 28, 2006.
2. Interfax, "Последнее "нет" доктора Перельмана", Jul 1, 2010.
3. 'Thomas Paine', "Some Laudations", Libertarianoid blog, Jun 11, 2010.


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