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Grigory Perelman and the Poincare Conjecture 241

Posted by kdawson
from the another-tortured-genius dept.
EagleHasLanded writes "Russian mathematician Grigory Perelman doesn't talk to journalists. Actually, he doesn't talk to anyone anymore. So we'll have to settle for insights via his biographer, Masha Gessen, who, strangely enough, has never talked to him either. But she has spoken with just about everyone who has ever had any significant interaction with Perelman, and the result is the book Perfect Rigor, which more than adequately explains why Perelman has gone into self-imposed exile, and why he probably won't collect the million dollars he won by solving the Poincare Conjecture."
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Grigory Perelman and the Poincare Conjecture

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  • Meh (Score:5, Insightful)

    by melikamp (631205) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @07:26PM (#30507528) Homepage Journal
    By not buying or reading this book, I am doing what Perelman surely would have wanted.
  • Re:Maybe .... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by codegen (103601) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @07:45PM (#30507638) Journal
    I know you were going for the cheap laugh and Funny mod points (no the joke did not go over my head). However there is more to the world than C, C++, Java and C#. Many computer languages still use = for equivalence. More importantly, in a story about mathematics, using = for the equivalence operator is probably more appropriate somehow.
  • by Vellmont (569020) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @08:22PM (#30507800)

    I guess I have to be more than a little skeptical of the opinion of someone who's only built up a view of someone based on hearsay. Trying to spin this like it's an advantage is at best self deception. Maybe it's an advantage because you get to make more stuff up, but it's certainly no advantage in actually trying to understand the person, or honestly convey who they are.

    I don't really blame the guy for not wanting to talk to journalists. With few exceptions, journalists don't represent the interests of the truth, (and most certainly not YOUR interests). Generally they're trying to sell some eyeballs, and you're the bait. Gessen talks about how the when you interview someone you're always fighting their own perception of them self. That may be true (though I'm not sure it's exactly a negotiation as much as it is an integration). When you read a journalists biography, you're constantly fighting what the journalist might have thought was the most interesting story to tell, (as opposed to the most accurate one).

  • Is this the guy (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 20, 2009 @08:32PM (#30507844)
    whose work was robbed by the Chinese paper publishing cottage industry? The one where the Chinese students who are of the wrong sex and not pretty are writing the papers, and their professor takes credit?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 20, 2009 @08:59PM (#30507968)
    Thank you for posting that. I surprised myself having made it through all 11 pages, but it was well written and highly interesting. I know it happens in all fields, but it was entertaining (if a bit sad) about the infighting that occurs in ground breaking mathematics.

    Anonymous cause I modded you up,
    -Tynin
  • Re:Maybe .... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Toonol (1057698) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @09:09PM (#30508006)
    Yeah, and I think C (and all its derivatives) went the wrong route. The single "=" should have been comparison, and something else (like ":=") should have been assignment. I think that's logically cleaner, and gets along nicer with mathematics.
  • Re:Mathematicians (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Tim2 (151713) <twegner AT swbell DOT net> on Sunday December 20, 2009 @09:19PM (#30508052)

    Mathematicians, by and large, tend to be very unhappy people in my experience. Not all of them, of course. Some mathematicians have a certain "spark" that allows them to abandon mathematics temporarily and give themselves over to the pleasure of an interpersonal relationship; but even so it is still against their nature to do so, and they will always slip back into the comfort of a mathematical outlook sooner or later.

    Even with qualification, this seems like a very rash generalization. I attended a doctoral program in Logic at the University of California Berkeley, where the names on the office doors were pretty much the same as the names of the most significant theorems. What struck me was the incredible diversity of how the best mathematicians' minds worked. Some saw mathematics as a meaningless game with symbols. Others had a vivid imagination for platonic realities that they captured in their work. Some were multi-talented, outgoing, and verbally and socially skilled . Others were introverted and poor communicators. I don't know what mathematicians you know, but your generalization that mathematicians tend to be unhappy makes no sense to me at all. I personally knew, and in a few cases worked for, a number who solved important problems. An example would be Julia Robinson (Hilbert's Tenth Problem) who certainly suffered from poor health and did have some difficult times earlier in her life, but at the time I knew her (1986-1972) could not be described as an unhappy person.

  • by Cassius Corodes (1084513) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @09:27PM (#30508086)
    He is raging coz others (in particular Yau) tried to (and to a certain extent succeed) take credit for his work. Instead of issuing a proper and deserved smack-down to these people he just hides. He is refusing the prizes as a protest against the lack of ethics in the mathematical community. In his mind he believes this demonstrates how he is totally committed to mathematics, and that only. Given that he was quite happy to accept prizes before and didn't feel that interfered with his work I suspect this is his way of raging as he is personality wise unsuited to direct confrontation.
  • by Pixie_From_Hell (768789) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @09:35PM (#30508124)

    and you've had a happy lives. the people he describes are 1) smarter than you or 2) had it tough emotionally

    1) you don't know me, and 2) I'm sorry for them.

    I've worked or studied at a variety of places: large state schools, smaller private schools, and in between. I've worked at one of the top five math departments in the country. I've met a lot of mathematicians, from ordinary to world-class. This is just to give you an idea where I'm coming from.

    Why do you think people who are smart or good at math must be emotionally or socially troubled?

    The original poster said:

    This is a universal affliction among mathematicians I've known.

    I'm just trying to provide a different perspective.

  • Re:not quite that (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 20, 2009 @09:36PM (#30508128)
    Perelman's proof was only viewed as skeletal because at the time only part 1 of 3 had been sent on to arXiv.org. Yao took advantage of the moment and lead a bit of a smear campaign on Perelman in order to make himself, his team, and China look better (perhaps a bit more complex than that). Once Perelman released part 2 and 3 of his Poincaré solution, Yao made further noise about not understanding some parts of it, and went on to say that his group with Cao and Zhu did all the leg work to fill in the gaps. However their were no mathematical gaps, Perelman had done the work himself. Even John Morgan [wikipedia.org] came forward and agreed that the reworkings done by Zhu and Cao did nothing to advance Poincare and that Perelmans work was complete and correct. So in short, all the noise the Chinese mathematicians were making was due to them trying to steal the thunder from Perelman and weasel their way into history.
  • by khallow (566160) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @09:46PM (#30508168)

    If you still do not understand why his refusal to accept the money, I'm not sure I can help you.

    Who said anything about understanding? He stated his reasons, we understand them. Instead, I too am curious what makes his refusal ethically significant to you. While your selected quotes indicate a consistent and logical approach to ethics (barring that Perelman's characterization of mathematics as a dishonest culture isn't nuanced and may even be self-serving), we also have a quote from another reply at your level:

    The commercialization of mathematics offends him. He was deeply hurt by the many generous offers he received from U.S. universities after he published his proof. He apparently felt he had made a contribution that was far greater than any amount of money--and rather than express their appreciation in appropriately mathematical ways, by studying his proof and working to understand it--they were trying to take a shortcut and basically pay him off. By the same token, the million dollars will probably offend him. I don't think we will be hearing from Perelman again.

    Assuming that characterization is correct, then it's not fair on Perelman's part to dictate what other peoples' perception of a reward should be. For example, what sort of communication did he make with the outside world to curb those job offers? How are they supposed to read his mind and determine what he wants for recognition? This sounds a lot like spite (as a strategy of altruism, I apologize for the connotation), sacrificing benefits both to yourself and others in order to harm someone in particular. While there can be ethical versions of spite, this seems more driven by pride than by some ethical standard.

    Finally, I don't have the ability to distinguish between an eccentric ethical system which is poorly communicated to me and a system of rationalization to avoid something the holder fears or dislikes. This could be a sophisticated ethical system or it could be sour grapes.

  • by schwit1 (797399) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @09:57PM (#30508232)
    If nothing else he could give it to a charity that helps children who have a gift in Math.
  • I feel a stronger connection with people like Perelman than the vast majority of my alleged peers, though still not an emotional one. People like Perelman have a more instinctive grasp of ethics than any neurotypical types.

    Actually it's called obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. It's not any genuinely thought-out ethics, it's a rigid, reflexive narcissistic dogmatism that is unpleasant to deal with.
  • Re:not quite that (Score:4, Insightful)

    by iluvcapra (782887) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @10:30PM (#30508390)

    Of course Perelman would say it was a complete proof, and supporters of others would say these others provided valuable details.

    I followed this story at the time as well, and though it pretty clear at this point that Perelman understood how the proof worked, it's not at all clear he knew how to explain it, or that he had the capacity to teach it to anyone... You ask what it means to prove something, and I think something a big part of how we understand "proof" at least in the sense of the Academy (our "corrupt" "politics" as Perelman would say) is that one can demonstrate the proof to others, can explain it in plain language and can fulfill the responsiblities of an Educator. That's certainly what Richard Feynman believed, a man perhaps as brilliant but as different as night and day from Perelman.

    In the western literary tradition, there's this certain tendency to romanticize a "Natural," a hermit, particulary a Russian one with wild hair that deals in abstruse mathematics (see Nabokov, Vladimir: The Luzhin Defense; Stoppard, Tom: Arcadia, etc). But we should try to recognize it for what it is: romanticism, the desire to tell a good story about an unusual aspect of human nature, and the fact that Perelman was "right" about his proof isn't particularly useful, considering other folks had to come along and write 300 page journal articles in order to confirm the issue. "Proof" is a social thing, and a mathematician is only practically right, insofar as he can explain himself and rigorously defend his argument.

    This is a pretty pragmatic argument I'm making, I guess, because I'm not really putting much stock in the simple "knowing" of a fact over and above the "teaching" and "using" of the fact. If we just start handing out credit to people who "know" things and handwave when we ask them "how," what's to keep us from celebrating mystics or prescients? You can't just reward people for being right in retrospect.

  • That's a curious thing to say. I thought his explanations of his motives seemed rather well thought-out, frankly, and I suspect he left out quite a bit of the thought that went into it. I'm also not at all convinced that your alternative diagnosis is the correct one.

    So you're saying that people with OCPD cannot be ethical? That seems quite a stretch, regardless whether it even applies to Perelman or not.

  • by Tynin (634655) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @10:49PM (#30508510)

    Who said anything about understanding?

    Actually I was responding to jjohnson, who in his question asked for enlightenment.

    He stated his reasons, we understand them.

    If you understood them, why are you still asking questions about them?

    Instead, I too am curious what makes his refusal ethically significant to you.

    Because he refuses to work in a system he feels has been driven by cut throat politics. Because he, with all his eccentricities, was able to reach above all of that and find comfort in a life not dictated by men with agenda's who'd smile while sticking a dagger in your back for a place in history.

    While your selected quotes indicate a consistent and logical approach to ethics (barring that Perelman's characterization of mathematics as a dishonest culture isn't nuanced and may even be self-serving), we also have a quote from another reply at your level:

    The commercialization of mathematics offends him. He was deeply hurt by the many generous offers he received from U.S. universities after he published his proof. He apparently felt he had made a contribution that was far greater than any amount of money--and rather than express their appreciation in appropriately mathematical ways, by studying his proof and working to understand it--they were trying to take a shortcut and basically pay him off. By the same token, the million dollars will probably offend him. I don't think we will be hearing from Perelman again.

    That quote is taken by the author of TFA who admittedly has never spoken with Perelman. What I've read from Perelman was taken by sources with whom he did speak with, and in them I found nothing about his disdain over the perception of being bought off. Perhaps that is just creative writing on the part of TFA, or maybe it is the truth, but I cannot tell. From my readings I took from it that it was his belief that math isn't something that should need a monetary reward, that the simple discovery of a new proof and the recognition that automatically goes with it are more than enough. It is a rare day we get to advance the knowledge of mankind, and he did so in a noble fashion, all the while his peers (Yau, Cao, and Zhu) worked hard to take the credit.

    Assuming that characterization is correct, then it's not fair on Perelman's part to dictate what other peoples' perception of a reward should be.

    I don't believe he tried to push his views on the world. When they tried to give him the Fields metal, they spent weeks trying to talk him into it, they even gave him three options; accept and come; accept and don’t come, and they'd send the medal later; third, I don’t accept the prize. From the very beginning, he told them he didn't accept. He didn't tell them that the prize and those that accept it were his lessers, just that he did not want it. He felt that if the proof was correct, that was all then he needed with no further recognition.

    For example, what sort of communication did he make with the outside world to curb those job offers? How are they supposed to read his mind and determine what he wants for recognition?

    This sounds a lot like a problem that will work itself out naturally. Why should a winner of a contest/prize have to announce to the world their intentions and how they'd like to be recognized? These people, companies, universities came to him, he has no responsibility to anyone to even return their calls as it were.

    This sounds a lot like spite (as a strategy of altruism, I apologize for the connotation), sacrificing benefits both to yourself and others in order to harm someone in particular. While there can be ethical versions of spite, this seems more driven by pride than by some ethical standard. Finally, I don't have the ability to distinguish between an eccentric ethical system wh

  • by Weaselmancer (533834) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @11:04PM (#30508590)

    I'm not saying he's a bad person. I'm saying his position on money and math is very narrow and eccentric. I don't see how this corresponds to ethical genius. You clearly do. Please explain it to me.

    Global warming.

    Look at how many dollars are being sent towards that. How much certain political agendas are spending to have guys in white coats say what whey wish them to say. And now the issue is so muddied nobody can say for certain what the facts actually are. Money and science are occasionally poor bedfellows. And getting paid puts you in someone's pocket.

    That seems like the antithesis of this guy. Money and truth are very nearly orthogonal - he knows this. So he doesn't wish to have the shadow of someone else's influence over his work. He wishes it to be pure math and nothing else.

    It's inspiring, actually.

  • Re:Hmm (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 20, 2009 @11:11PM (#30508618)

    It's the gamble you make by posting predictable jokes.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 20, 2009 @11:11PM (#30508624)
    Word is he made enough money while in the United States to retire for good, before he returned home. I'm sure his mom is living pretty well these days. However, yeah a charity would have been nice, but now the organization saved $1MM they can use as prize money for another extreme math problem.
  • Re:not quite that (Score:5, Insightful)

    by sirsnork (530512) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @11:13PM (#30508634)
    I understand where you're coming from, but to me he did explain it well enough to teach it. A number of other mathematicians went over this and claimed it complete, sure, it took them a few years, but thats pretty much the standard now anyway. It sounds to me like he was happy enough to make this understandable by those smart enough to use it and leave it at that
  • Re:Who cares? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by tenco (773732) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @11:36PM (#30508734)

    Brittany Murphy is dead

    I didn't even know she was sick.

    I didn't even know who Brittany Murphy was.

  • Re:Maybe .... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by nanospook (521118) on Sunday December 20, 2009 @11:57PM (#30508802)
    Maybe he didn't stop "doing" math, maybe he just stopped publishing math? A mind like his probably sees math in everything he senses..
  • by Tynin (634655) on Monday December 21, 2009 @12:19AM (#30508956)
    I insult only those who would needlessly be insulted I suppose. Anyone, regardless of profession, has the right to be paid for their work. Perelman was given the offer to be paid, but he took the road less traveled, opting to give something he took from his mind and share it with the world freely. I guess it is things like this that got me into the Open Source movement, because money shouldn't always be the motivation. Sometimes giving something to the community, something that you toiled away on for a huge portion of your life creates a better world for tomorrow. Anyone that wants a life of luxury has a good chance of getting it if they put in the time. I am of the belief that those that put in the time to become masters of a field, and then give selflessly back to the world, should be celebrated as they are a rarity. All of humanity is richer for their efforts regardless of the motivation of the selfless giver.

    I'm not sure why you felt insulted, as I feel you've insulted a large number of great minds when you assumed that money should be the primary goal in any effort worth dedicating yourself to.
  • Re:Maybe .... (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 21, 2009 @12:57AM (#30509180)

    Yes, it would.

  • by shadowofwind (1209890) on Monday December 21, 2009 @01:56AM (#30509436)

    It's thinking like this that brought us a world where people assume doctors are greedy bastards if they want a high-end salary for 12 years of soul-crushing education

    From what I've seen, its the influence of money and ego that has made medical school as expensive and soul crushing as it is. In many ways its less about turning out good doctors, and more about maintaining the position and wealth of those who are higher up on the pyramid. If the motives that shape the training were different, it would still be a long period of very hard work, but would yield more of the kind of enjoyment that hard work and learning bring.

    Except of course for those who are in it more for the money.

  • Re:Who cares? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by jbwiebe (1240630) on Monday December 21, 2009 @02:03AM (#30509460)

    I'll conjecture that Grigory Perelman doesn't know who Brittany Murphy was, either.

    And I'll further conjecture that Brittany Murphy didn't know who Grigory Perelman was.

  • Re:Maybe .... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by DNS-and-BIND (461968) on Monday December 21, 2009 @02:32AM (#30509572) Homepage

    At one time, crotchety old men could be grumps and misanthropes without being slapped with a label, assumed to be suffering from some syndrome that could be treated if only the appropriate amount of money is paid to Pfizer.

    And what makes you believe that a bunch of Buddhists would even accept an outsider like this? Do monasteries exist just so worldly people can go in retreat for a few years?

    You do know that the "high power" mind of Sir Conan Doyle believed wholeheartedly in fairies? "History concurs", my ass!

  • by debatem1 (1087307) on Monday December 21, 2009 @02:51AM (#30509628)
    IME, the more beautiful you believe something to be, the more offended you are at the idea that it can be boxed up and sold.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 21, 2009 @03:59AM (#30509852)

    Isn't is amazing that someone " with few or no social skills, coping skills, communication skills, or negotiating skills" was able to do what others couldn't? Maybe it was the lack of those skills that allowed him to concentrate on the matter at hand instead of ppl issues?

    "He could have donated the money to charity." What's preventing the prize committee from doing it?

    " And by withdrawing from mathematics, he has deprived the world of his very valuable contributions." Maybe he has nothing more to give right now, and instead of faking it like he would have to do to survive in academe, he chooses to be honest? That's ethical...

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 21, 2009 @05:00AM (#30510080)

    I find it disturbing that so many people in this discussion appear to want to "diagnose" this guy. Must everything come down to some popular psychology?

    I think many are offended that he doesn't want more attention for his proof, because they would have wanted continued attention and praise.

    I think others are surprised that he's not demanding his prize money, because they themselves can't imagine turning it down.

    Not everyone who doesn't conform to our expectations has a condition. Some of you have been brainwashed.

  • Just SOME? Try most....

    You didn't mention, though I suspect the thought crossed your mind, that perhaps the reason why Perelman's choices, reasoning, and decisions "offend" others is because HIS behavior sets an example that calls the righteousness of their own behavior into question? If your suggestion is indeed true that Perelman offends others, I propose it's because he's holding a mirror up to the less-than-altruistic behavior of others and forcing them to take a critical look at themselves, perhaps for the first time.

    I think we need more people like Grigori Perelman... many, many more.

  • Re:Humankind Cares (Score:3, Insightful)

    by gad_zuki! (70830) on Monday December 21, 2009 @09:47AM (#30511374)

    While smarts and social oddness go hand in hand, stuff like exile and not talking to people on this level is actually pretty uncommon. You mention Einstein. Well, for a good part of his life he was incredibly social. Always giving speeches about his views and opinions, hence all the bumper sticker and quotes. Heck, he even spoke at a vegetarian event even though he was a meat eater.

    Personally, I think a lot of this is autism/aspergers spectrum stuff or a sign of mental illness. Lets not forget the high correlation between suicide and high IQ.

  • Wow. You must actually teach a forensic debate course in ad hominem. I'm utterly crushed... crushed, I tell ya, that you would say such awful humiliating things about people with beards. Santa Claus is gonna be really depressed when he gets your letter and finds out that he's ugly.

  • I know the valued-added arguments well enough, but I don't accept their validity as an excuse for what takes place in capitalism. "Creating" an EMOTIONAL value is fallacious in my opinion, and other than that it's just reorganizing and reshaping matter that already existed. What you're really talking about is trying to put a price on the value of human labor, on the effort or skill required to perform that reshaping of matter, and that always leads to unfair comparisons, doesn't it?

    Socialism (true mutualism, not the politicized variety) may be Utopian and impossible to implement given the state of our species, but at least it correctly identified the ethical problems with capitalism.

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