Reclusive genius shuns world’s top maths prize
By Ben Harding
MADRID (Reuters) – The maths world’s biggest celebrity
shunned its most prestigious prize on Tuesday, apparently
bitter at his perceived mistreatment by fellow intellectuals.
Russian Grigory Perelman remained in his St. Petersburg
flat while the greatest maths minds met in Madrid for the
International Mathematical Union’s four-yearly congress.
The 40-year-old recluse had been due to receive a Fields
Medal, known as the “Nobel Prize” of maths, after solving the
Poincare Conjecture — a quandary on the properties of spheres
that has bedevilled mathematicians for more than a century.
It took Perelman five years to solve the problem and the
reasons for his refusal to accept the award, or even make a
speech, remain unclear.
News reports said he was hurt at not being re-elected a
member of St. Petersburg’s Steklov Mathematical Institute last
Anatoly Vershik, a friend of Perelman’s, said the
mathematician was only interested in his work being declared
correct, and saw other forms of recognition as “superficial.”
“It is a very personal issue, which may have its logic, or
maybe it has none,” Vershik, president of the St. Petersburg
Mathematical Society, told Reuters in a statement. “He is very
reserved, he doesn’t like to talk about it.”
John Ball, chair of the Fields Medal Committee, told a news
conference he spent two fruitless days in St. Petersburg trying
to persuade Perelman to accept the award.
Ball said his refusal “centred on his feelings of isolation
from the mathematical community.”
“Consequently he doesn’t want to be a figurehead of that
community. He obviously has a different kind of psychology to
other people,” he said.
There was no immediate comment from Perelman.
The Poincare Conjecture is so difficult that the U.S. Clay
Mathematics Institute named it as one of the seven Millennium
Prize Problems in 2000 and pledged a $1 million bounty to
anyone who could solve one.
“They are like these huge cliff walls, with no obvious hand
holds. I have no idea how to get to the top,” said Terence Tao,
who received a Fields Medal on Tuesday, along with two other
Perelman is the only person to have solved any of the
Millennium Problems and his theory is on the verge of being
verified as three teams come to the end of years of checks,
Ball told Reuters. Whether he will accept the $1 million prize
from the Clay institute is open to question, but Tao is in no
doubt both prizes are deserved.
“It is a fantastic achievement, the most deserving of all
of us here in my opinion,” said the 30-year-old Australian.
“Most of the time in mathematics you look at something
that’s already been done, take a problem and focus on that. But
here, the sheer number of breakthroughs…well it’s amazing.”
(Additional reporting by Denis Pinchuk in St. Petersburg
and Andrei Khalip in Rio de Janeiro)