A gripping and tragic tale that sheds rare light on the unique burden of genius
In 2006, an eccentric Russian mathematician named Grigori Perelman solved the Poincare Conjecture, an extremely complex topological problem that had eluded the best minds for over a century. A prize of one million dollars was offered to anyone who could unravel it, but Perelman declined the winnings, and in doing so inspired journalist Masha Gessen to tell his story. Drawing on interviews with Perelman’s teachers, classmates, coaches, teammates, and colleagues in Russia and the United States—and informed by her own background as a math whiz raised in Russia—Gessen uncovered a mind of unrivaled computational power, one that enabled Perelman to pursue mathematical concepts to their logical (sometimes distant) end. But she also discovered that this very strength turned out to be Perelman's undoing and the reason for his withdrawal, first from the world of mathematics and then, increasingly, from the world in general.
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About the Author
MASHA GESSEN is a journalist who has written for Slate, Seed, the New Republic, the New York Times, and other publications, and is the author of numerous books, including The Future is History, which has been nominated for the National Book Award.
Read an Excerpt
A Problem for a Million Dollars
Numbers cast a magic spell over all of us, but mathematicians are especially skilled at imbuing figures with meaning. In the year 2000, a group of the world’s leading mathematicians gathered in Paris for a meeting that they believed would be momentous. They would use this occasion to take stock of their field. They would discuss the sheer beauty of mathematics —a value that would be understood and appreciated by everyone present. They would take the time to reward one another with praise and, most critical, to dream. They would together try to envision the ele gance, the substance, the importance of future mathematical accomplishments.
The Millennium Meeting had been convened by the Clay Mathematics Institute, a non profit organization founded by Boston- area businessman Landon Clay and his wife, Lavinia, for the purposes of popularizing mathematical ideas and encouraging their professional exploration. In the two years of its existence, the institute had set up a beautiful office in a building just outside Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and had handed out a few research awards. Now it had an ambitious plan for the future of mathematics, “to record the problems of the twentieth century that resisted challenge most successfully and that we would most like to see resolved,” as Andrew Wiles, the British number theorist who had famously conquered Fermat’s Last Theorem, put it. “We don’t know how they’ll be solved or when: it may be five years or it may be a hundred years. But we believe that somehow by solving these problems we will open up whole new vistas of mathematical discoveries and landscapes.”
As though setting up a mathematical fairy tale, the Clay Institute named seven problems —a magic number in many folk traditions —and assigned the fantastical value of one million dollars for each one’s solution. The reigning kings of mathematics gave lectures summarizing the problems. Michael Francis Atiyah, one of the previous century’s most in ?u en tial mathematicians, began by outlining the Poincaré Conjecture, formulated by Henri Poincaré in 1904. The problem was a classic of mathematical topology. “It’s been worked on by many famous mathematicians, and it’s still unsolved,” stated Atiyah. “There have been many false proofs. Many people have tried and have made mistakes. Sometimes they discovered the mistakes themselves, sometimes their friends discovered the mistakes.” The audience, which no doubt contained at least a couple of people who had made mistakes while tackling the Poincaré, laughed.
Atiyah suggested that the solution to the problem might come from physics. “This is a kind of clue —hint —by the teacher who cannot solve the problem to the student who is trying to solve it,” he joked. Several members of the audience were indeed working on problems that they hoped might move mathematics closer to a victory over the Poincaré. But no one thought a solution was near.
True, some mathematicians conceal their preoccupations when they’re working on famous problems —as Wiles had done while he was working on Fermat’s Last —but generally they stay abreast of one another’s research. And though putative proofs of the Poincaré Conjecture had appeared more or less annually, the last major breakthrough dated back almost twenty years, to 1982, when the American Richard Hamilton laid out a blueprint for solving the problem. He had found, however, that his own plan for the solution —what mathematicians call a program —was too difficult to follow, and no one else had offered a credible alternative. The Poincaré Conjecture, like Clay’s other Millennium Problems, might never be solved.
Solving any one of these problems would be nothing short of a heroic feat. Each had claimed dec ades of research time, and many a mathematician had gone to the grave having failed to solve the problem with which he or she had struggled for years. “The Clay Mathematics Institute really wants to send a clear message, which is that mathematics is mainly valuable because of these immensely difficult problems, which are like the Mount Everest or the Mount Himalaya of mathematics,” said the French mathematician Alain Connes, another twentieth-century giant. “And if we reach the peak, first of all, it will be extremely difficult —we might even pay the price of our lives or something like that. But what is true is that when we reach the peak, the view from there will be fantastic.”
As unlikely as it was that anyone would solve a Millennium Problem in the foreseeable future, the Clay Institute nonetheless laid out a clear plan for giving each award. The rules stipulated that the solution to the problem would have to be presented in a refereed journal, which was, of course, standard practice. After publication, a two-year waiting period would begin, allowing the world mathematics community to examine the solution and arrive at a consensus on its veracity and authorship. Then a committee would be appointed to make a final recommendation on the award. Only after it had done so would the institute hand over the million dollars. Wiles estimated that it would take at least five years to arrive at the first solution —assuming that any of the problems was ac tually solved —so the procedure did not seem at all cumbersome.
Just two years later, in November 2002, a Russian mathematician posted his proof of the Poincaré Conjecture on the Inter net. He was not the first person to claim he’d solved the Poincaré —he was not even the only Russian to post a putative proof of the conjecture on the Inter net that year—but his proof turned out to be right.
And then things did not go according to plan —not the Clay Institute’s plan or any other plan that might have struck a mathematician as reasonable. Grigory Perelman, the Russian, did not publish his work in a refereed journal. He did not agree to vet or even to review the explications of his proof written by others. He refused numerous job offers from the world’s best universities. He refused to accept the Fields Medal, mathematics’ highest honor, which would have been awarded to him in 2006. And then he essentially withdrew from not only the world’s mathematical conversation but also most of his fellow humans’ conversation.
Perelman’s peculiar behavior attracted the sort of attention to the Poincaré Conjecture and its proof that perhaps no other story of mathematics ever had. The unprecedented magnitude of the award that apparently awaited him helped heat up interest too, as did a sudden plagiarism controversy in which a pair of Chinese mathematicians claimed they deserved the credit for proving the Poincaré. The more people talked about Perelman, the more he seemed to recede from view; eventually, even people who had once known him well said that he had “disappeared,” although he continued to live in the St. Petersburg apartment that had been his home for many years. He did occasionally pick up the phone there —but only to make it clear that he wanted the world to consider him gone.
When I set out to write this book, I wanted to find answers to three questions: Why was Perelman able to solve the conjecture; that is, what was it about his mind that set him apart from all the mathematicians who had come before? Why did he then abandon mathematics and, to a large extent, the world? Would he refuse to accept the Clay prize money, which he deserved and most certainly could use, and if so, why?
This book was not written the way biographies usually are. I did not have extended interviews with Perelman. In fact, I had no conversations with him at all. By the time I started working on this proj ect, he had cut off communication with all journalists and most people. That made my job more difficult —I had to imagine a person I had literally never met —but also more interesting: it was an investigation. Fortunately, most people who had been close to him and to the Poincaré Conjecture story agreed to talk to me. In fact, at times I thought it was easier than writing a book about a cooperating subject, because I had no allegiance to Perelman’s own narrative and his vision of himself —except to try to figure out what it was.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Once the pages begin to turn , the biography pulls the reader thru to the end. My only comment is that I would have liked to learn more about how Perelman proved the Poincare Conjecture. I am surprised by the use of Thermodynamics in the proof. Given that it took the mathematical community one and a half years to vet Perelman's proof, if follows that it will be a while before a writer explains Perelman's work to the public. I'll be waiting.
You need not be a mathematician to find this book interesting, as it describes Russia's mathematical training for the talented, with its highs--coaches and cram courses for the obligatory exams, and its lows--rampant anti-semitism, severely limited applicants on the path to recognition and fulfillment. The demanding road to a highly trained, world-class professional is well-documented, well-written, and accessible to all readers. Unfortunately, this remarkable problem-solver has withdrawn, by choice, and sadly, may never be heard of professionally again. - Reviewed by Bob Berin
A great look at the man, and the nation, that brought about the long-sought solution to a mathematical puzzle involving multiple dimensions, and the 'sphericality' of the universe.
This book really took me by surprise. Masha Gessen did a really good job with the small amount of information that she had to go off of. Still it was more information than the subject of the book, Grigory Perelman would have liked her to have. This book is the story of a Russian mathematician who solved this centuries greatest mathematical problem and refused to play by the rules. When forced to try to be rewarded for his efforts, Perelman closed himself off from the world; leaving the mathem...moreThis book really took me by surprise. Masha Gessen did a really good job with the small amount of information that she had to go off of. Still it was more information than the subject of the book, Grigory Perelman would have liked her to have. This book is the story of a Russian mathematician who solved this centuries greatest mathematical problem and refused to play by the rules. When forced to try to be rewarded for his efforts, Perelman closed himself off from the world; leaving the mathematics community for good. Though she was left to speculate what may have been going on in his head, Gessen pulls together an intriguing tale about the mind of a genius through interviews with some of the people who knew him well. She starts off with the fortunate timing of Perelman's entrance into the world of mathematics and gets into the politics that surrounds his solution in a once benign world of overachievers.This book is a quick read, and well worth it!