Thursday December 10th, 2009

The Mathematician Subtracts Himself

Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century by Masha Gessen
Houghton Mifflin, 256 pp., $26.00

It’s a wonder that anyone would go through the trouble of giving a Russian any sort of prize. If history is to be our guide, it seems more trouble than it’s worth. A political cartoon from 1959, drawn by Bill Mauldin, makes this plain. The scene: Russian poet Boris Pasternak and another prisoner in Siberia splitting trees in the snow. The caption: “I won the Nobel Prize for Literature. What was your crime?”

Just two days after hearing that he had been awarded the Nobel in 1958, an excited Pasternak sent the following telegram to the Swedish Academy: “Immensely thankful, touched, proud, astonished, abashed.” Four days later, the author of Doctor Zhivago sent the august body another message: “Considering the meaning this award has been given in the society to which I belong, I must refuse it. Please do not take offense at my voluntary rejection.”

Pasternak had, of course, declined the prize under intense pressure from Soviet authorities, and the Nobel medal was eventually presented to his son, Yevgeny, at a ceremony in Stockholm in 1989, where he said: “My father never expected to receive the prize. Sadly it brought him a lot of sorrow and suffering.” Mauldin, an American cartoonist, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning in 1959 with no controversy, no sorrow, and no suffering.

Then there’s the case of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. When Solzhenitsyn, already at odds with the Soviet regime for books like The Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, he, too, was reluctant to accept the prize personally in Stockholm, afraid he wouldn’t be let back into the Soviet Union. Instead, it was suggested that he receive the prize in a special ceremony at the Swedish embassy in Moscow. The Swedish government refused this solution, since such a ceremony might upset the Soviets and damage relations with the superpower. Solzhenitsyn didn’t receive his prize until the Nobel ceremony in1974—after he had been deported from his home country.
Now, in Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century, journalist Masha Gessen tells the story of Grigori Perelman, a man besieged not by his government but by his own mind. In November 2002, Perelman, a Russian mathematician little known outside of his discipline’s community, caused a stir when he posted the first in a series of papers proving the most famous unsolved problem in topology: the Poincaré conjecture. Four years later, he caused another commotion when he refused to accept the Fields Medal—the “mathematics Nobel”—for his work, and abandoned the field altogether. When last heard, Perelman was living a recluse’s existence at his mother’s home in St. Petersburg.

There is no Nobel Prize for mathematics. So when the Clay Mathematics Institute, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, announced the Millennium Prizes in 2000 for the purposes of popularizing mathematical ideas and encouraging their professional exploration, people took notice. The institute had an ambitious plan for the future, “to record the problems of the twentieth century that resisted challenge most successfully and that we would most like to see resolved.”

Solving any one of these seven problems would be nothing short of heroic; many mathematicians had gone to the grave having rigorously tried and failed. The Clay Institute laid out a clear plan for giving each award, stipulating that the solution to the problem would have to be presented in a refereed journal, which was 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 about 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 award one million dollars to the problem’s solver.

Just two years after the establishment of the prize, Perelman posted his proof of the Poincaré conjecture on the Internet. But Perelman did not publish his work in a refereed journal. Nor did he agree to vet or have his proof reviewed by others. He turned down numerous job offers from the world’s best universities. He refused to accept the Fields. (“[The Fields] was completely irrelevant for me,” Perelman said. “Everybody understood that if the proof is correct then no other recognition is needed.”)

Perelman’s peculiar behavior attracted waves of attention, but the more people talked about the problem and the man who solved it, the more Perelman seemed to recede from view. Even people who had known him well eventually said that he’d “disappeared,” though he continued to live in the St. Petersburg apartment that had been his home for many years.

When Gessen set out to write this book, she 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 society at large? Would he refuse to accept the prize money, which he deserved and most certainly could use; and if so, why?

Perfect Rigor, which along the way discusses autism and Asperger’s, the early Soviet mathematics community, and that community’s contributions to the fledgling human rights and dissident movements that would ultimately lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union, isn’t a traditional biography. Gessen did not have extended interviews with Perelman; she had no conversations with him at all. By the time she started working on this project, he had cut off communication with all journalists and most other people as well. Gessen had to create a sense of him indirectly. Fortunately, most of those who had been close to him and the Poincaré conjecture saga agreed to talk. Just as fortunately, Gessen, the author of, among others, Dead Again: The Russian Intelligentsia After Communism and Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler’s War and Stalin’s Peace, is just the journalist who can get to the heart of Russian intellectual dilemmas.

Drawing on interviews with her subject’s teachers, classmates, math coaches, teammates, and colleagues in Russia and the United States—and informed by her own background as a math nerd raised in Russia—Gessen found a mind of unrivaled computational power. And she discovered that this very strength turned out to be Perelman’s undoing, his mind unable to cope with the messy reality of most human affairs. When the jealousies, rivalries, and passions of life intruded on his Platonic ideal, Perelman began to withdraw, from the math world and then the world more generally. In telling his story, Gessen has constructed a gripping and tragic tale that sheds rare light on “the unique burden of genius.”

This year, the Clay Mathematics Institute is expected to award Perelman one million dollars for his efforts. Will he emerge from self-imposed exile and accept the award, or will he once again refuse the accolades bestowed on him by what he perceives to be a corrupt system? You do the math.

Kevin Kinsella is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Most recently his work has appeared at/in The Rumpus and Bomb Magazine. His translation of Osip Mandelshtam’s Tristia, from Russian, was published by Green Integer Books.

Mentioned in this review:

Perfect Rigor
Dead Again: The Russian Intelligentsia After Communism
Ester and Ruzya