Ask children today what they want to be when they grow up, and the chances are they will say ‘rich and famous’. But in a world where money and fame rule supreme, there is at least one man with very different values – Grigori Perelman.
Who Is Grigori Perelman?
Grigori Perelman is a 54-year-old Russian math genius who solved one of the world’s most challenging mathematical problems. However, he not only turned down a prestigious medal but also a $1 million prize that went with it.
So where is Grigori Perelman now? He is currently unemployed and lives in a small apartment with his mother and sister in St Petersburg.
To this day, Perelman still refuses to talk to the press about his outstanding achievement.
When one reporter managed to find out his mobile number, he said:
“You are disturbing me. I am picking mushrooms.”
According to the neighbours, Perelman is unkempt, antisocial, and wears the same dirty clothes day in, day out. He grows his fingernails to several inches long. He looks like a modern-day Rasputin figure with a long beard and bushy eyebrows.
On the rare occasions he ventures out, he will not make eye contact. Instead, he prefers to shuffle along the streets, staring at the pavement to avoid conversation.
So, who is the reclusive Grigori Perelman?
Let us look at where it all started; the mathematical challenges set by the Clay Mathematics Institute.
Grigori Perelman and the Seven Millennium Prize Problems
The Clay Mathematics Institute is a private non-profit organisation specialising in math research. In 2000, the institute set a challenge. This was a tribute to the German mathematician David Hilbert.
Hilbert had set a challenge of 23 fundamental math problems at the International Congress of Mathematicians in 1900 in Paris.
The institute reset Hilbert’s challenge and issued a list of seven mathematical problems. But these are no ordinary challenges. These challenges have perplexed some of the most brilliant scientific minds of our times.
There is a $1 million prize awarded, plus an esteemed medal of recognition to the person or institution who can solve one of these challenges.
The Seven Millennium Prize Problems are:
- Yang-Mills and Mass Gap
- Riemann Hypothesis
- P vs NP Problem
- Navier–Stokes Equation
- Hodge Conjecture
- Poincaré Conjecture (solved)
- Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer Conjecture
The Poincaré Conjecture
As of this date, the only problem to be solved is the Poincaré Conjecture. I will give you some idea of the gravity of this achievement.
The Poincaré Conjecture has been considered one of the maths’ most famous open problems of the 20-century.
In 2002, Grigori Perelman solved the problem. It would take another eight years before his peers validated his theory.
Once they agreed they awarded the $1 million and the medal, but Perelman wanted neither. He rejected the prize money and went into seclusion, stating:
“I’m not interested in money or fame; I don’t want to be on display like an animal in a zoo.”
Another fascinating fact about Perelman is that he did not even apply to the institute so they could test his theory. In November 2002, Perelman published ‘The Entropy Formula for the Ricci Flow and Its Geometric Applications’ on the internet.
He did not even claim that he had solved the Poincaré Conjecture, however, mathematical experts realised he had made a breakthrough. Invitations to present talks at Princeton, Columbia University, New York University and MIT followed.
He delivered talks, and the pressure was on him to accept professorships which he turned down. Because, slowly, Perelman was becoming disillusioned with the field of mathematics.
We have to delve into his early student days to find out.
The early years of Grigori Perelman
Gifted in mathematics, his parents recognised his talent from an early age. Speaking about his father, Perelman said:
“He gave me logical and other maths problems to think about. He got a lot of books for me to read. He taught me how to play chess. He was proud of me.”
His mother helped him apply to district math competitions, and he also attended a maths club run by an esteemed maths coach.
Perelman learned to speak English to attend Leningrad’s Special Mathematics and Physics School Number 239. He represented Russia in the International Mathematical Olympiad in 1982 and won gold. He also received a prize for attaining a perfect score.
As an Olympiad, the university accepted him automatically. Here he excelled and published papers on some of the most challenging mathematical theories of the century.
Graduating in 1987, the next natural step for this talented mathematician would be at the prestigious Leningrad branch of the Steklov Mathematics Institute.
However, Perelman was a Jew, and the institute had strict rules against accepting Jews. But Perelman had his supporters who lobbied the institute and eventually he was allowed to take on graduate work under supervision.
You have to understand that Perelman must have been exceptionally gifted because this was a highly unusual situation.
Perelman completed his Ph.D. in 1990 and went on to publish outstanding papers. He gained a reputation as a maths genius.
In 1992, Perelman was living in the United States, attending seminars and lectures. He accepted a position at the Miller Research Fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley.
It was during this time he met an influential professor of maths Richard Hamilton. Hamilton was studying an equation he called the Ricci flow.
Perelman met with Hamilton and was impressed by the openness and generosity of the professor:
“I really wanted to ask him something. He was smiling, and he was quite patient. He actually told me a couple of things that he published a few years later. He did not hesitate to tell me.”
Perelman attended many of Hamilton’s lectures, and by using his research on the Ricci flow, he decided that they would make a good team.
Perhaps they could even solve the Poincaré Conjecture. When it appeared that Hamilton was not interested, Perelman worked on the problem by himself.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Now we discover why this esteemed mathematician refused his prestigious award and the money.
Why Grigori Perelman turned down $1 million
Perelman did not want the fame or the scrutiny that came with the Fields Medal.
“It was completely irrelevant for me. Everybody understood that if the proof is correct then no other recognition is needed.”
But that was not the only reason.
He believed in collaboration and openness from his fellow mathematicians. To him, the important thing was for everyone to make progress.
Then, in 2006, a previous recipient of the Fields Medal – Chinese mathematician – Shing-Tung Yau gave a lecture in Beijing. Here, he implied that two of his students – Xi-Ping Zhu and Huai-Dong Cao were responsible for solving the Poincaré Conjecture.
Yau did mention Perelman and acknowledged that he had made an important contribution but said:
“…in Perelman’s work, spectacular as it is, many key ideas of the proofs are sketched or outlined, and complete details are often missing.” He added, “We would like to get Perelman to make comments. But Perelman resides in St. Petersburg and refuses to communicate with other people.”
This was not the final blow to Perelman. He believed that Richard Hamilton should get recognition for his work on the Ricci flow. To say he was disappointed with the math community would be an understatement.
His work was validated in 2010. He was awarded the prize money, which he promptly turned down.
By this time, he had become so disillusioned with maths that he retired from maths research.
When he refused the $1 million award, he said:
“I do not like their decision, I consider it unfair. I consider that the American mathematician Hamilton’s contribution to the solution of the problem is no less than mine.”
Grigori Perelman is a principled human being. He cares only about the purity and integrity of his science. These days that is a rare quality.
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