Saturday, 19 May 2012

Perfect Rigour

Listening to:

Brahms, symphony no. 2 in D, op. 73. The Royal Concertgebouw conducted by Mariss Jansons.

Just read:

Perfect Rigour: a genius and the mathematical breakthrough of the century, by Masha Gessen.

This is a very interesting biography of the Russian mathematician, Grigory Perelman. Perelman’s claim to fame is that he proved the Poincaré Conjecture. This entitled him to a $1 million prize from the Clay Institute for solving one of its ”Millenium Problems” (see their page about it). However, Perelman did not accept the prize money, and did not attend the award ceremony. Indeed he has apparently completely withdrawn himself from the world of mathematics and refuses to talk to most people.

This biography is thus “unauthorised”. On the other hand, Gessen had good access to many of the influential people in Perelman’s life, and has written a compelling account of his story to date. Along the way, she paints a vivid picture of how a mathematically gifted child might grow up in the Soviet Union. One of the depressing facets of Perelman’s story is the extra obstacles he had to deal with because he is Jewish. Soviet anti-semitism clearly outlived Stalin. It makes one wonder just what Enlightenment ideals the Soviets managed to live up to at all.

Gessen concludes with a pretty plausible theory: Perelman has Asperger’s Syndrome, and so sees and interacts with the rest of the world in a pretty unusual way. This runs the risk of seeming a little reductionist (Oh yes, everything P. has ever done is fully explained by this diagnosis). But my feeling is that the picture of the world contained in the biography up to this point is sufficiently rich and nuanced that the Asperger theory adds to what has gone before rather than collapsing it all into irrelevance.

The picture of modern academic mathematics contained in the last third of the biography is also an interesting read. It seemed slightly foreign (quite a different area from mine, and a rather more exalted level of course), but also quite familiar at a broader level.

Highly recommended.