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March 27, 2010 1:02 AM   Subscribe

Grigori Perelman has refused one million dollars from the Clay Mathematics Institute for his solution to the Poincaré conjecture. Despite some pressure to take the money and give it to one party or another, Perelman insists "I am not a hero of mathematics. I am not successful at all, and I do not want to be observed by everyone." Perelman previously refused the Fields Medal, mathematics' highest honor. (Previously.)
posted by twoleftfeet (146 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Of course, by refusing, he ends up with an order of magnitude more attention.
posted by mek at 1:05 AM on March 27, 2010


Of course, by refusing, he ends up with an order of magnitude more attention.

You think he's soaking up the publicity to go on a talk show?
posted by shii at 1:06 AM on March 27, 2010 [8 favorites]


I'm not really sure why exactly, but this man really breaks my heart.
posted by nevercalm at 1:12 AM on March 27, 2010 [6 favorites]


World's best eyebrows.
posted by telstar at 1:17 AM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah, this is obviously just a cynical ploy for more attention. You know how those mathematicians are -- always craving the spotlight, angling to maximize their time on the talk-show circuit, maybe get a reality TV show deal or something. Remember like five years ago when you couldn't go down to the bookstore without seeing some mathematician's new cookbook? And that mathematician who married that pop singer and then managed to get her label to release his lame R&B album, { x : x ∈ My Figgaz }? They all make me sick.
posted by No-sword at 1:19 AM on March 27, 2010 [77 favorites]


I would very much like to sit and drink tea with this man.

He whose happiness is within, he whose contentment is within,
Whose light is all within; That Yogi, being One with Brahman,
Attains eternal freedom in pure consciousness.

posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 1:20 AM on March 27, 2010 [5 favorites]


It's not about the money. This town deserves a better class of mathematician. And I intend to give it to 'em.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:25 AM on March 27, 2010 [6 favorites]


"I'm not really sure why exactly, but this man really breaks my heart."

Wasted potential?!

The guy has completely turned his back on practicing the one thing he's a certified genius at... a mathematical version of Syd Barrett.

Why shouldn't people feel sad about that?! I'm sorry all this attention is bugging Grigori, but he is apparently so broken that he can't understand why people would feel that way.

Perhaps it's the attention, the expectation, and the hopes that caused him to leave... or perhaps he solved the puzzle that was nagging at him for so long... and, in retrospect, realized that doing so was pretty obsessive and not really all that much fun.

(Is it wrong to wish that someone would spike his mushrooms with prozac?)
posted by markkraft at 1:26 AM on March 27, 2010 [5 favorites]


That a millions bucks dude, do the math.
posted by victors at 1:29 AM on March 27, 2010 [34 favorites]


I dunno. I can empathize with him. I wouldn't want that much money and recognition thrown at me all at once. Gradually, sure, but all at once? That would be ridiculously stressful.
posted by TwelveTwo at 1:32 AM on March 27, 2010


The guy has completely turned his back on practicing the one thing he's a certified genius at... a mathematical version of Syd Barrett.

Syd Barrett? Really? Um, that guy didn't so much as turn his back on music as turn inside out and become a tangerine asd98UP(S*DUPSufpisadjfpsa8dfupas9dufP(*USPOIU on music.

A leeeeeetle different, from where I'm slouching.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 1:40 AM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


They say that maths is a young man's thing; best work in your twenties, nothing much new after thirty. In those sort of terms, being retired at 44 is quite reasonable.
posted by Phanx at 1:44 AM on March 27, 2010


I imagine mek was only commenting on the irony of it all, but good job ascribing motives to a single line of text right out of the box. It's that sort of attitude that really keeps me coming back here. Thanks!
posted by absalom at 1:48 AM on March 27, 2010 [6 favorites]


Hm, but absalom, if we were just just trying to heightening the absurdity of the irony rather than implying a criticism of mek, wouldn't that make you guilty of the very thing you are decrying? We are in danger of creating a Cantorian irony vortex here. I think it's time for an n-dimensional manifold isomorphic to a hug. Someone roll in a blackboard.
posted by No-sword at 2:09 AM on March 27, 2010 [8 favorites]


I'd take the Fields Medal, but then I suck at math.
posted by bwg at 2:14 AM on March 27, 2010


Of course, by refusing, he ends up with an order of magnitude more attention.

Yeah, but 2 or 3 orders of magnitude less money. Also, he could use the money to buy attention.
posted by delmoi at 2:15 AM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


(Or, I see if he *doesn't want* attention, it would make more sense to take the money, because then people would stop hassling him about it)
posted by delmoi at 2:17 AM on March 27, 2010


maybe he is from a culture which does not worship the mythical "15 minutes" or in today's rapidly connected world with info bits flying fast as soon as you hit publish, the mythical "nano moment" ?
posted by infini at 2:31 AM on March 27, 2010


This man doesn't want a reward for solving a math problem. He will do what he does best; he's not interested in money or recognition; he has everything he needs and he's not going to take the money to try and solve the rest of the world's problems. I admire this man. God bless him.
posted by millions at 2:35 AM on March 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


This man doesn't want a reward for solving a math problem. He will do what he does best; he's not interested in money or recognition; he has everything he needs and he's not going to take the money to try and solve the rest of the world's problems. I admire this man. God bless him.
posted by millions at 7:35 PM on March 27 [+] [!]


epony--

nah.

I wish he'd taken the money. If he didn't want it, there's plenty of good things that could be done with it. Like giving it to me.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 2:36 AM on March 27, 2010


maybe he should start a foundation for scholarships for math talent found in slum schools
posted by infini at 2:39 AM on March 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


I love people that pursue a type of work for its' own sake. I sometimes wonder if they can't help but.

Outside of him might be "...his mother and sister in his hometown of St. Petersberg, living extremely humbly." but inside his mind would probably seem spectacular to me as would the inside of my mind and your mind to him. It sounds like a place I'd probably rather visit than reside.
I imagine that Grigori doesn't understand why everyone else doesn't understand. His work might require effort but it simply follows a path. His work is not to be lauded and he would gladly trade in his understanding of the Poincaré conjecture ^, or rather his not knowing how one could not understand, for a pair of roller-skates and ease for once.

At any rate, I'm impressed by anyone that can understand, let alone push at, the outer boundaries of math.
posted by vapidave at 2:44 AM on March 27, 2010


(Or, I see if he *doesn't want* attention, it would make more sense to take the money, because then people would stop hassling him about it)

Notice the bit about where he lives? If he accepts it, he'll have all his neighbours constantly knocking on his door, going "lend us a few hundred, eh? What's a few hundred to you if you have a million bucks in the bank?". Right now they probably just think he's nuts because he won't accept the money, but if he does, well, there goes his peace and quiet.
posted by daniel_charms at 2:46 AM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Joseph Gurl: I wish he'd taken the money. If he didn't want it, there's plenty of good things that could be done with it.

The awarding institute can still do plenty of good with it if they want to, they just won't be able to transfer that responsibility to him that because he solved a math problem.
posted by millions at 3:05 AM on March 27, 2010 [9 favorites]


Maths genius is freaky weirdo. Film at 11.01
posted by i_cola at 3:28 AM on March 27, 2010 [5 favorites]


"Syd Barrett? Really? Um, that guy didn't so much as turn his back on music as turn inside out and become a tangerine asd98UP(S*DUPSufpisadjfpsa8dfupas9dufP(*USPOIU on music."

Actually, yes, I think it's very similar in some ways, in that he is a victim of what made him a mathematical genius.

People are looking at this situation with Perelman as if it's a new story, but in reality, he's been a hermit for years, and there has already been a book written about him and his rather tragic mindset, published before the award was ever granted.

The guy's brilliant mathematical mind simply cannot calculate people, and effectively navigate their systems, jealousies, and petty intrigues, since they do not make sense. His intense rationality has ironically pushed him towards isolation, paranoia, and the brink of insanity.

As the author says in an interview from last year:

"What is it about Perelman that allowed him to solve perhaps the most difficult mathematical problem ever solved?"

Perelman has a mind that is capable of taking in more information than any mathematical mind that has come before. His brain is like a universal math compactor. He grasps complex problems and reduces them to their solvable essence. The problem is that he expects human beings to be similarly subject to reduction. He expects the world to function in accordance with a set of strictly laid out rules, and he cannot take in anything that does not conform to those rules. And because the world is so unruly, Perelman has had to cut off successive chunks of it. All that is left for him now is the apartment he shares with his mother.

"What do you think the future holds for Perelman?"

Some people who are very fond of him have speculated that when he is finally awarded the Millennium Prize, he will come out of hiding, claim his just reward, and perhaps reveal that he never really abandoned mathematics. It’s a wonderful but unlikely scenario. 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.

It's easy to blame the nature of humanity, perhaps, but that's about as ridiculous as blaming humanity for not being compatible for those with Asperger's. As brilliant as Perelman is at math, in some ways, we're out of his league... and it's our collective loss, really.
posted by markkraft at 3:37 AM on March 27, 2010 [37 favorites]


i wonder if there's anything about which side of Perelman's brain is active and whether the two halves are in balance?
posted by infini at 3:45 AM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.

after enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.

keep choppin' & carryin' grigori perelman!
posted by msconduct at 4:14 AM on March 27, 2010 [13 favorites]


Markkraft:

That whole thing reeks of armchair psychoanalysis (not your fault, but the author's), but your he is a victim of what made him a mathematical genius is just you projecting, imo.

Do you *really* think it was the LSD that made Syd Barrett good at music and the social dysfunction that makes Perelman good at math? To me, neither statement stands up to scrutiny, and both seem to me to be just more of the threadbare "geniuses are different from us" cop-out (a cop-out because it allows us to be satisfied without seeking "genius" for ourselves. A convenient fiction, but a fiction, imo).
posted by Joseph Gurl at 4:25 AM on March 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


> i wonder if there's anything about which side of Perelman's brain is active and whether the two halves are in balance?

Seriously? Really? Why stop there? Maybe he has a prehensile penis or forked tongue. Cloven hooves? Synesthesia? Celestial visitations?
posted by Joseph Gurl at 4:28 AM on March 27, 2010 [5 favorites]


One day I should like to have an article written about me referring to me as a "reclusive [nationality]ian genius", by god.

Also "Mathsputin" is maybe the best nickname ever. And now I have to go listen to some Boney M. At 8am on a Saturday. *sigh*
posted by elizardbits at 5:06 AM on March 27, 2010


I am definitely projecting here, but: I don't think most people have trouble understanding Perelman's motivations at all. All the major religions of the world suggest detachment from ego and material possessions as an ideal way to live, so even the non-religious are likely to have been exposed to the idea. Most of us look at that as only an impractical ideal, though - to be looked to as a guide rather than something realistically achievable.

Perelman lives up to it apparently without compromise. This exposes our own excuses and justifications. So we fall back and argue about his responsibility to society, now that he is/can be rich and famous and influential.

I can easily imagine Perelman's line of thought on this - I solved a fucking math puzzle, you guys. Why do you think that creates any obligation for me to live my life in a way that you find acceptable? I see no reason to suddenly share your opinion on what I should find important. I'm pleased that you like the math. Leave me alone.

Meanwhile the words "crazy" and "weird" get thrown around. I really hope Perelman doesn't give a shit, and thankfully it is looking like that.
posted by vanar sena at 5:08 AM on March 27, 2010 [19 favorites]


His intense rationality has ironically pushed him towards isolation, paranoia, and the brink of insanity.

Uh, no. He is a crazy person who happens to be good at math. Why must they be related?
posted by TypographicalError at 5:10 AM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Do you *really* think it was the LSD that made Syd Barrett good at music and the social dysfunction that makes Perelman good at math?

I think that what made Syd so musically special also made him seek out LSD, and that the LSD was excellent nourishment for his music brain.
posted by Meatbomb at 5:16 AM on March 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


yeah I know rtfa but the narrative hasn't changed so tell me, why do they say he's crazy? btw, i gotta spouse meatbomb now
posted by infini at 5:20 AM on March 27, 2010


wait a minute, I already spoused meatbomb. dude, wouldja spouse me please on mefi?
posted by infini at 5:23 AM on March 27, 2010


Syd Barrett was honest but overrated. Religion and math don't exclude one another. I'm down with seeking genius for ourselves. Hopefully that doesn't entail learning Icelandic in two weeks.

Hell, I could prove no three positive integers a, b, and c can satisfy the equation an + bn = cn for any integer value of n greater than two if the margins here weren't so small.
posted by vapidave at 5:23 AM on March 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


It sounds to me like this guy needs nothing more than for the US to send over a couple of our top schoolyard bullies to straighten him out.
posted by digsrus at 5:24 AM on March 27, 2010


i thought we didn't consider twisting arms quite the 'done' thing here on the blue?
posted by infini at 5:31 AM on March 27, 2010


infini, I am beginning to doubt that you and I are reading the same thread.
posted by vanar sena at 5:37 AM on March 27, 2010


vanar sena, my problem is that i allowed my various threads on the internet merge into one stream [forces self away from keyboard before cliches spout out unheedingly ;p]
posted by infini at 5:38 AM on March 27, 2010


>"The problem is that he expects human beings to be similarly subject to reduction. He expects the world to function in accordance with a set of strictly laid out rules, and he cannot take in anything that does not conform to those rules.

I sit for a child with Asperger's Syndrome. Some similiar attributes.

He's probably happier with his Mom than studying death at Rand. Especially since they don't say what kind of mushrooms he's picking.
posted by dragonsi55 at 5:52 AM on March 27, 2010


This is ridiculous. Leave the man alone, already. He's refused the award, which means the Institute can do whatever they want with it. They can donate it to science. Donate it to charity. Throw a huge party and hire a bunch of strippers. But it's all on them what they do with it. Perelman has made it abundantly clear that he doesn't want to be bothered, especially not by the likes of the Personality Merchandising Machine that is most modern-day Awards.

I mean, fucking hell… solving one of humanity's great unsolvable problems wasn't fucking enough, was it? No, no… now let's bring him out and put him in a little funny outfit and have him do tricks for us on stage. DANCE FOR US!
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:07 AM on March 27, 2010 [29 favorites]


No one else should make an ignorant comment or hilarious joke without reading markkraft's comment upthread first. Perelman's "retirement" to do jack-shit in his mom's shitty apartment is a tragic loss for humanity.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 6:22 AM on March 27, 2010


A simplified tour of Perelman's proof (warning: PDF, Powerpoint, Poincare) from Terence Tao.
posted by kid ichorous at 6:25 AM on March 27, 2010 [6 favorites]


(Is it wrong to wish that someone would spike his mushrooms with prozac?)

Depending on the type of mushroom that may not be necessary
posted by delmoi at 6:27 AM on March 27, 2010


He is thinking rationally. His work is entirely in his mind. Money will not help his work. Being given a significant amount of money will hinder his work by making it more difficult for him to focus on what he wishes to work on. Therefore, he does not want the money.

Why can so few people see this?
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:27 AM on March 27, 2010 [7 favorites]


C_D to be fair humanity was kind enough to provide him with the problem. That took a fair bit of work. Why shouldn't we expect a little something in return for our trouble?
posted by oddman at 6:37 AM on March 27, 2010


Optimus Chyme: "Perelman's "retirement" to do jack-shit in his mom's shitty apartment is a tragic loss for humanity."

This is true without a shadow of doubt. This is however humanity's problem, not Perelman's problem. If it is so important to humanity, it is up to _us_ to encourage him to relent in a way that makes sense to him.

He could disappear today and his impact on mathematics would not be lessened. My fervent hope is that if society sees this kind of academic achievement as important, we will rearrange things so that if there is even one other person amongst the billions on the planet with this kind of talent, he/she never goes wanting for the perfect storm of environment and opportunity that allows the talent to express itself.
posted by vanar sena at 6:40 AM on March 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


I would do the same thing. Probably. I might be seduced by the money, because there are things that I want, but taking it would be a mistake -- one that would ultimately make me unhappy. I hope I would have the restraint not to take it.

I DO crave attention, but only from a small group of people that I already know. As an introvert, I have no desire to get attention from strangers. And that's putting it mildly. And this is something I worry about. I work in a field where it's slightly possible this could happen to me. It's not likely, but it's possible. I love what I do too much to quit doing it, but there's a risk of fame attached to it.

If you don't hate attention. If you're meh about it or into it, you won't ever be able to understand. But for me, being a public figure wouldn't be an irritant. It would be HELL. And by hell, I mean that if I had to live a public life, I would probably consider suicide.

If Perelman is like me, he's in a bind. He has to do mental calculus about what will get him the most/least fame: taking the money or refusing it.
posted by grumblebee at 7:00 AM on March 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


No one else should make an ignorant comment or hilarious joke without reading markkraft's comment upthread first. Perelman's "retirement" to do jack-shit in his mom's shitty apartment is a tragic loss for humanity.

"jack-shit" comes across as a bit dismissive. He did solve the puzzle after all. I'd say he's entitled to turn his back. And why does this all have to be on him, anyway? If math is so fucking important to humanity, why doesn't humanity quadruple funding to maths education, or something? It just seems like we constantly take the easy way out: educating a generation is hard, and who knows if and when it will pay off. Much simpler to just fling money at the occasional genius while we muddle along.
posted by Ritchie at 7:00 AM on March 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


Optimus Chyme: "Perelman's "retirement" to do jack-shit in his mom's shitty apartment is a tragic loss for humanity."

If to Perelman, being in the public eye is as painful as it is to me, this is a tough issue. At what point do you let personal needs trump your duty to your fellow humans? I would say that if taking the money is going to lead to temporary discomfort for him, he should get over himself, take it, and continue to work for the common good.

On the other hand, if serving humanity in this way is going to lead to a lifetime of misery for him -- years and years of misery -- then that's too much for us to expect.

Again, if you're an extrovert (or not an extreme introvert), you're not suited to understand how this could be a dire situation for him. You're naturally going to think, "Oh, Jesus. Stop being so selfish! Suck it up and do your duty." If you think that an introvert can "just get over" something like this, you don't understand what introversion is like.
posted by grumblebee at 7:05 AM on March 27, 2010 [5 favorites]


He is thinking rationally. His work is entirely in his mind. Money will not help his work.

That's ridiculous. Modern mathematicians use computers all the time, and money buys computers.
posted by delmoi at 7:07 AM on March 27, 2010


Perelman is mentally ill. I respect his right not to engage with people if he doesn't want to, but I don't think it's admirable, I think it's a problem that could be fixed with medication.
posted by killdevil at 7:18 AM on March 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Also "Mathsputin" is maybe the best nickname ever. And now I have to go listen to some Boney M. At 8am on a Saturday. *sigh*


Add, add, Mathsputin
Abandoning mathematic scene
There was a cat that really was gone
Add, add, Mathsputin
Russia's greatest math machine
It was a shame how he carried on
posted by dubold at 7:19 AM on March 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


Perelman has apparently given up on mathematics, dismayed at the intellectual and moral failings of his peers. Instead, according to reports, he likes to play table tennis against a wall in his apartment.

Have you ever played tennis against someone who's really shitty at it? I don't mean they always hit a second serve; I mean they can barely hit a forehand over the net, and when they do it goes out. It doesn't feel like you're playing tennis, it feels like you're hitting into blank space. It totally sucks and I think if I could only play tennis that way for the rest of my life, I wouldn't want to play at all. I would still sit at home and see how many times in a row I could bounce the ball on my racket, sure, but I wouldn't ever again go out on a court. Although if everyone else in the world was suddenly, magically, worse than I was, maybe I would take the opportunity to go to Wimbledon and get my clotted cream and strawberries and hoist the Venus Rosewater Dish high in the air, because I grew up dreaming about doing it. But it still wouldn't feel like playing tennis, and it would probably destroy every childhood dream I had about what winning Wimbledon would be like.

Maybe I'd sit at home and do math instead, because there at least I know there's a world full of people whose talent, far greater than mine, will push me to improve rather than rot from lack of competition.
posted by sallybrown at 7:19 AM on March 27, 2010 [12 favorites]


If he's happy playing table tennis against a wall and picking mushrooms then I wish him many more years of it.
posted by rocket88 at 7:34 AM on March 27, 2010 [10 favorites]


Think Perelman will show up here? Maybe the mods can email him and offer him a free account. I kind of doubt he does PayPal.
posted by fixedgear at 7:44 AM on March 27, 2010


Modern mathematicians use computers all the time, and money buys computers.

Delmoi, you're advertising your ignorance here. There is no evidence, nor any reason to think, that Perelman ever once used a computer in his work. A computer wouldn't have been helpful for what he was doing, except for typing up his papers.
posted by gleuschk at 8:01 AM on March 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


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.

What you are describing here is a tantrum. It would make more sense, then, to assume that he is angry at not being WORSHIPED for his discovery by everyone. In that delusional mindset, one million dollars means very little, because it ruins the fantasy by making him normal. The main sticking point about any assumptions regarding his character is the refusal to donate it, and by giving up math, presumably because it won't make someone important enough to the average person and only results in normalcy. I wonder how many people assume that he is taking care of his mother, and not the other way around.
posted by Brian B. at 8:10 AM on March 27, 2010


gleuschk: That doesn't mean he might not want to use one on some other problem.
posted by delmoi at 8:11 AM on March 27, 2010


I'm all for living simply.

But dude, take the money and get a room a table, stool and clean mattress. You could do something about those cockroches too, just sayin'.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:11 AM on March 27, 2010


By all accounts, Perelman was dismayed by what he perceived as ethical failings among other mathematicians, some of whom he believed were trying to take credit for his work. He blamed other honest mathematicians for not speaking up against them. This is all covered in a long and excellent New Yorker article. The 'ugly thing' he refers to below was parsed by the article authors as either being corrupt or overlooking what he regarded as corruption within the professional field.
The prospect of being awarded a Fields Medal had forced him to make a complete break with his profession. “As long as I was not conspicuous, I had a choice,” Perelman explained. “Either to make some ugly thing”—a fuss about the math community’s lack of integrity—“or, if I didn’t do this kind of thing, to be treated as a pet. Now, when I become a very conspicuous person, I cannot stay a pet and say nothing. That is why I had to quit.” We asked Perelman whether, by refusing the Fields and withdrawing from his profession, he was eliminating any possibility of influencing the discipline.

“I am not a politician!” he replied, angrily. Perelman would not say whether his objection to awards extended to the Clay Institute’s million-dollar prize. “I’m not going to decide whether to accept the prize until it is offered,” he said.

Mikhail Gromov, the Russian geometer, said that he understood Perelman’s logic: “To do great work, you have to have a pure mind. You can think only about the mathematics. Everything else is human weakness. Accepting prizes is showing weakness.” Others might view Perelman’s refusal to accept a Fields as arrogant, Gromov said, but his principles are admirable. “The ideal scientist does science and cares about nothing else,” he said. “He wants to live this ideal. Now, I don’t think he really lives on this ideal plane. But he wants to.”
Anyone who's spent any time at all among mathematicians (confession: I did Math for a year at Oxford before switching to English) will recognize both Perelman and the type of person he rails against instantly.
posted by unSane at 8:13 AM on March 27, 2010 [10 favorites]


Sorry -- correction -- the 'ugly thing' he refers to is making a fuss about the corruption, not becoming corrupt himself. So it seems that he felt that if he accepted the prize, he'd have to either cause a stink, or shut up and play along, neither of which he could do. It's quite logical, as you'd expect.
posted by unSane at 8:16 AM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Note, he sounds considerably sane, though painfully naive and principled.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:17 AM on March 27, 2010


"You know what, Jerry? Shove the medal up your fuckin' ass, all right? 'Cause I don't give a shit about your medal because I knew you before you were a mathematical god, when you were pimple-faced and homesick, and didn't know what side of the bed to piss on."
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey at 8:20 AM on March 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Actually, unSane's comments provide a better picture, so I retract my comment about Perelman being "painfully naive".
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:21 AM on March 27, 2010


Why oh why doesn't he love money as much me? He must be insane! Crazy! Selfish! Throwing a tantrum! There's clearly something wrong with him, not with us!

The newspaper articles make me sad for humanity and this thread and sad for Metafilter. But I'm very happy for Grigori Perelman, it sounds like he's got a lot of things figured out in addition to the Poincare conjecture.
posted by Llama-Lime at 8:34 AM on March 27, 2010 [14 favorites]


Maybe I'd sit at home and do math instead, because there at least I know there's a world full of people whose talent, far greater than mine, will push me to improve rather than rot from lack of competition.

You literally have no idea what you're talking about. Perelman is not some sort of ubermensch who solved the Poincaré conjecture through sheer force of intelligence and will, whereas no other could do it. He's simply a mathematician who is brilliant (although not the most accomplished in the world today) who was in the correct field, and who had the correct insights to craft the proof.

Perelman is suffering from a serious and crippling problem. Everyone should leave him alone, but be clear on the fact that what he is doing doesn't come from a rational or sane place.
posted by TypographicalError at 8:35 AM on March 27, 2010


Why oh why doesn't he love money as much me? He must be insane! Crazy! Selfish! Throwing a tantrum! There's clearly something wrong with him, not with us!

I assume he gets paid plenty already, and being raised communist and treated royally special his entire life, it would explain his belief that money doesn't matter to orphanages or schools either.
posted by Brian B. at 8:41 AM on March 27, 2010


He is thinking rationally. His work is entirely in his mind. Money will not help his work. Being given a significant amount of money will hinder his work by making it more difficult for him to focus on what he wishes to work on. Therefore, he does not want the money.

Why can so few people see this?


His work now is not entirely in his mind. His work is challenging walls to games of table tennis and picking mushrooms. He gave up on mathematics entirely, and THAT'S the part that I just don't get. Don't want the money? I get that. Don't want to work alongside mathematicians who you think are corrupt? I can get that, too. But shit, just stay at home and keep working on math. I don't get the leap from "Gawd, I don't want the money and you people are corrupt" to "SO OBVIOUSLY I CAN'T WORK ON MATH ANYMORE".
posted by 23skidoo at 8:44 AM on March 27, 2010


"Do you *really* think it was the LSD that made Syd Barrett good at music and the social dysfunction that makes Perelman good at math?"

It wasn't specifically the acid. It was that he became schizophrenic.

Now, there is evidence to suggest that LSD can lead to schizophrenia, amongst people who are prone to schizophrenia. But then again, there is also evidence to suggest that marijuana can do the same thing. The fact remains that certain types of people seem to be prone to it... and one of the things about them is that they tend to be very creative people, who had a lot of family stress growing up.

So, while drugs most likely played a contributory role, the fact is, he was, through nature and nurture, primed to be a psychotic... and a creative genius.
posted by markkraft at 8:45 AM on March 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm alarmed by how judgemental some of the responses here are. Tall poppy syndrome, much? Leave the guy be, extreme gifts do not oblige their recipients to be any less flawed than the rest of us. A whole boatload of cash requires management - difficult enough for the average lottery winner to deal with, never mind a recluse. And if his Mum is unhappy about him not accepting the cash that's her beef, not yours.

For an insight into exactly this kind of personality phenomenon check out Logicomix.
posted by freya_lamb at 8:48 AM on March 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


I sit for a child with Asperger's Syndrome. Some similiar attributes.

Yes, yes, if someone's lifestyle is different from our own, they are pathological.

Everyone should leave him alone, but be clear on the fact that what he is doing doesn't come from a rational or sane place.

The man solved the poincare conjecture and you're the one with superior reasoning ability?

Vanar sena has it - the man's a hero in this vein.
posted by phrontist at 8:51 AM on March 27, 2010 [5 favorites]


From a recent paper addressing depression and suicide rates among UK veternarians:

• The stress begins while they're still in training. Typically, entrance to veterinary schools is limited to high achievers, whose personality traits may include neurosis, conscientiousness and perfectionism, all risk factors for suicidal behaviors.

Bold added. Although I hesitate to compare anyone to suicide victims, but that's not the point. The interesting angle here is that Perelman's stock is way up and any book he writes will be easy to sell, if and when he changes his mind and gets over the perceived insult by the entire math world.
posted by Brian B. at 8:54 AM on March 27, 2010


No one else should make an ignorant comment or hilarious joke without reading markkraft's comment upthread first. Perelman's "retirement" to do jack-shit in his mom's shitty apartment is a tragic loss for humanity.

Do we know what he does when he is at home? Maybe he's solving the next hard math problem that is out there.

Secondly, all of this pop-psychology 'he's clearly unwell' is very superficial. We know four or five facts (all repeated in the articles). There's clearly little information about him and just because someone lives frugally, and is a recluse, does not make them unwell / unstable / crazy. And the oft-repeated 'cockroach' piece is coming from ONE neighbor.

Maybe we should stop contributing to the rumor-mill, and respectfully appreciate someone who has generously contributed to humanity, without looking for material gain.
posted by a womble is an active kind of sloth at 8:54 AM on March 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


23skidoo: "I don't get the leap from "Gawd, I don't want the money and you people are corrupt" to "SO OBVIOUSLY I CAN'T WORK ON MATH ANYMORE"."

It's called burnout and is very common amongst people who realize that a hobby or a passion doesn't always make a good profession.
posted by vanar sena at 8:55 AM on March 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


We are in danger of creating a Cantorian irony vortex here.

I read this as Canadian irony vortex. Equally dangerous.
posted by mek at 9:00 AM on March 27, 2010


I'm reminded of William James Sidis - who also found the world unworthy of his gifts.

Let's be very clear on something: He doesn't owe us shit.

Not acceptance of our trinkets. Not the fruits of his genius. And - unless he gets locked up for something - not a defense of his mental state.
posted by Joe Beese at 9:03 AM on March 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


He seems a bit like a math's answer to Wittgenstein.
posted by vorpal bunny at 9:27 AM on March 27, 2010


It's not like, because he didn't accept this money, the institute's going to burn it. Why don't people give him the real prize he wants - to be left alone and not constantly prodded?
posted by Solon and Thanks at 9:29 AM on March 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


"In 1995, Steve Peaters had no money. He was a public school teacher, so his opinion wasn't worth very much. But then, in 1996, he won the lottery, and he was a great man! Greater than Einstein, who made very little. But then, guess what this genius-for-a-day does: he goes and gives his money to charity. Now he's about as dumb as Einstein. Way to go, Einstein!"
posted by Iridic at 9:33 AM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


That guy is exactly what I would expect a reclusive Russian math genius to look like.
posted by brundlefly at 9:34 AM on March 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Can someone explain, in simple terms, why this (his refusal to accept the prize? to do more math?) is a tragic loss for humanity? Does solving this solve world hunger or unequal distribution of resources or something? Serious question.
posted by fixedgear at 9:35 AM on March 27, 2010


Reminds me of another guy who resigned...

"I am not a number (theorist), I am a free man!"
posted by tss at 9:39 AM on March 27, 2010


He is thinking rationally. His work is entirely in his mind. Money will not help his work. Being given a significant amount of money will hinder his work by making it more difficult for him to focus on what he wishes to work on. Therefore, he does not want the money.

I don't get the leap from "Gawd, I don't want the money and you people are corrupt" to "SO OBVIOUSLY I CAN'T WORK ON MATH ANYMORE".

There is an underlying assumption here (and in several other comments) that mathematics is what he really wants to do all the time and if it weren't for his mental illness/the moral failings of society at large, he would gladly return to the community of mathematicians and make a kerjillion new discoveries and all would be sweetness and light.

But maybe he's decided there are better ways to live out his days than working on math. I happen to love math very, very much, I think it is the most beautiful thing in the world, but I sympathize. It is a very stressful thing to spend all your time on, especially if you care very much about it. There's an old joke that says "A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems." There's a lot of truth in that, and I would completely understand if any mathematician decided that they didn't want to be that machine any more. If all he wants to do is pick mushrooms with his mom, fine, he's allowed to do that. He's not a tool for human advancement, he is a human being himself, and if he decides his time would be better spent being happy, rather than being useful that's his prerogative.

There's been a lot of moaning about "wasted potential," but I can't join in on that. Maybe from our point of view he's wasting his talent, but from his point of view, continuing to work on math would be a waste of his life. His retirement has been called a "tragic loss for humanity." Maybe so, but when someone spends a lifetime doing something that makes him unhappy just to please a pack of strangers, that's pretty fucking tragic too.
posted by Commander Rachek at 10:06 AM on March 27, 2010 [13 favorites]


Can someone explain, in simple terms, why this (his refusal to accept the prize? to do more math?) is a tragic loss for humanity? Does solving this solve world hunger or unequal distribution of resources or something? Serious question.

I can't speak to the Poincare Conjecture specifically, but algebraic topology is extremely important in, for example, object recognition, discrete and computational geometry, combinatorics, algorithms, and distributed computing. More generally, results like this -- and the tools that are developed to solve them -- often end up having applications in somewhat unexpected fields. Topology, and in particular manifolds, is foundational to relativity and our understanding of spacetime. So, world hunger, probably not, but a brain like Perelman's working on problems like this is quite capable of providing the groundwork to completely upend our notions of reality.
posted by unSane at 10:13 AM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


...a brain like Perelman's working on problems like this is quite capable of providing the groundwork to completely upend our notions of reality.

Don't disturb him, he's playing table tennis!
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:18 AM on March 27, 2010


"Can someone explain, in simple terms, why this is a tragic loss for humanity?"

It's not about the prize at all. It's about him no longer practicing math, as he has a one-of-a-kind mind for it that is far more valuable than a mere fat check.

(Here's a good answer for why the solution he did matters, and here's an example of another $1,000,000 mathematical prize that remains to be solved. Given that this kind of math underpins so many important things, it's really hard to know just what could come of a solution in the future...)

Sometimes, new solutions merely provide new approaches for solving other problems... but sometimes, they change everything.
posted by markkraft at 10:25 AM on March 27, 2010


Don't disturb him, he's playing table tennis!

And like any good hermit, he always takes his cell phone with him to pick mushrooms so he can insult the caller with his keen ascetic wit.
posted by Brian B. at 10:37 AM on March 27, 2010


Can someone explain, in simple terms, why this is a tragic loss for humanity? Does solving this solve world hunger or unequal distribution of resources or something? Serious question.

it's not. and, frankly, the sort of analysis these guys do (on Ricci flow) is pretty far away from anything applicable to the problem of human suffering. but, you seem to have a very limited view of what counts as humanity...

One of the things about Perelman is that he grew up in a culture where if you showed talent in mathematics you were groomed, trained, and put into math competitions at an early age. these competitions are about solving hard problems. What Perelman actually tried to prove was Thurston's "Geometrization Conjecture." The idea of using 'Ricci flow' to do this is due to the mathematican Hamilton. In a competition you don't get to make up the problems, other people make them up and you just try to solve them. So, essentially, Perelman just won his biggest math competition ever.

It's like he personally won the super-bowl, when was just the last person to score. And that's the problem with things like the Field's medal or any big prize. They distort the intellectual culture, and turn the already distasteful (but unavoidable) competition over ideas into a competition over money and power too.
posted by ennui.bz at 11:20 AM on March 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


"They distort the intellectual culture, and turn the already distasteful (but unavoidable) competition over ideas into a competition over money and power too."

And yet, prizes to solve problems or accomplished tasks tend to lead towards solved problems and accomplished tasks.

Heaven forbid that, in cases where there are longstanding, intractable problems that potentially hold back advancement, but which have no clear financial reward to justify the time and effort required to solve them, people step forward to find ways to reward innovation and hard work.
posted by markkraft at 11:31 AM on March 27, 2010


What you are describing here is a tantrum. / his belief that money doesn't matter to orphanages or schools either. / The interesting angle here is that Perelman's stock is way up and any book he writes will be easy to sell / And like any good hermit, he always takes his cell phone with him to pick mushrooms so he can insult the caller with his keen ascetic wit.

His worst offense was clearly taking a giant shit in Brian B.'s coffee.
posted by setanor at 11:31 AM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I don't think it's admirable, I think it's a problem that could be fixed with medication

Haha! Right! He could totally use a dose of that ol' Ricci Flow on himself!
posted by setanor at 11:33 AM on March 27, 2010


maybe he should start a foundation for scholarships for math talent found in slum schools

Maybe the people with the money can do that themselves without forcing it on an intermediary.
posted by setanor at 11:34 AM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


His worst offense was clearly taking a giant shit in Brian B.'s coffee.

I was obviously having the most fun not feeling sorry for the guy. Sorry if I offended any curmudgeons.
posted by Brian B. at 11:45 AM on March 27, 2010


The problem is that he expects human beings to be similarly subject to reduction.
(Perelman's biographer, in failuremag)

Or, Perelman expects other human beings to be rational and deep-thinking like himself. The burden of the "problem" isn't on him; it's on us.
posted by polymodus at 11:55 AM on March 27, 2010


What a hall of mirrors this is. Perception is projection.
posted by kaspen at 12:30 PM on March 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


Isn't it amazing that science is so advanced that even non-doctors can diagnose depression, schizophrenia, and Asperger's in a person they haven't met and whose whole basis for the diagnosis is third and fourth-hand stories about the guy?

---

The only real controversy here is that Perelman doesn't think he's indebted to prize committees (and internet commenters) just because they want to shower praise and money on him. His worst offense is making people feel irrelevant - he's not only a genius who is pretty much okay with his lifestyle, he just doesn't give two shits about other people's expectations of him. He doesn't care about celebrity or money, and has strict ethical and moral standards and adheres to them - how horrible!

As for the horseshit that he's obligated to take the prize and donate it to charity, isn't it great how that works? Notice that merely being offered something means you have to take it and keep it, or take it and give it away. Not taking it is now a moral wrong, cool huh? I guess the Millenium Committee or whoever the fuck and their financial backers have no moral agency whatsoever.
posted by r_nebblesworthII at 12:35 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


He's not making me feel irrelevant.
posted by fixedgear at 12:40 PM on March 27, 2010


well, bully for you.
posted by r_nebblesworthII at 12:50 PM on March 27, 2010


As for the horseshit that he's obligated to take the prize and donate it to charity, isn't it great how that works? Notice that merely being offered something means you have to take it and keep it, or take it and give it away. Not taking it is now a moral wrong, cool huh? I guess the Millenium Committee or whoever the fuck and their financial backers have no moral agency whatsoever.

A lot of people are going to identify with Perelman-the-victim. He was a mascot for self-pity before this thread was half-a-day old.
posted by Brian B. at 12:54 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I once saw an interview with Feynman and they asked him about his Nobel prize and he said "I do not like prizes, honors, any of that". Or words to that effect. There are a lot of egotistical people doing advanced technical work. There are a lot people being dickish in this very thread. Don't you have some work to do?
posted by bukvich at 12:54 PM on March 27, 2010


E. M. Cioran on Beckett's Nobel Prize: "What a humiliation for such a proud man."

These prizes are impositions—welcome impositions in most cases, probably, but impositions nonetheless. Perelman, for whatever reason, prefers not to accept any awards, so why would anyone insist on shoving their gratitude down his throat?

If he wanted to insult the international maths community, he really ought to ditch the Sartrean approach and follow Thomas Bernhard's example instead: accept the award and then write a book-length polemic against the imbeciles who gave it to him.
posted by Syme at 1:41 PM on March 27, 2010


Some bad grammar in the last sentence there, sorry.
posted by Syme at 1:52 PM on March 27, 2010


"Perelman is mentally ill. I respect his right not to engage with people if he doesn't want to, but I don't think it's admirable, I think it's a problem that could be fixed with medication."

Is there any indication from mental health professionals that have actually interacted with this guy that he is mentally ill? I didn't see any and I find the idea that anyone who lives simply and keeps to themselves needs "fixing", with drugs or otherwise, abhorrent.
posted by Mitheral at 2:02 PM on March 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


"Notice that merely being offered something means you have to take it and keep it, or take it and give it away. Not taking it is now a moral wrong, cool huh?"

I don't see all that many people here arguing that he *has* to take the money at all.

What I do see more of, frankly, is frustration and regret that someone who is an obvious genius and a fully grown adult is so unable to cope with the world that he's unemployed at anything to put that intellect to use, and basically living in his mom's basement.

The waste isn't the money. It's the potential.

Are we supposed to believe that he's perfectly happy living like that... or just happier than he would be if he had to deal with a reality that is too hard to cope with? He's not some sort of enviable genius living a good , simple life, and I suspect he'd find that idea kind of distasteful.

Under the circumstances, it seems to me best -- and easiest for him -- if the world left him alone, under the circumstances. I doubt it has what would ail him.
posted by markkraft at 2:03 PM on March 27, 2010


On a similar vein...

Ignorance is bliss.
posted by markkraft at 2:11 PM on March 27, 2010


I wouldn't be so sure he's all that happy. Living in a roach magnet room--creating that roach-magnet room--and still under his mother's wing...being happy isn't exactly the only reason to turn one's back on money (or give away one's worldly possessions...or live in abject squalor...or move in with mom in middle age...).

Dude may well be depressed. Or have some kind of martyr-complex. Or both. Certainly doesn't seem to be living any kind of happy life (I mean, wall-ping-pong is fun for a while, but, um, eventually you're going to want someone else to play with...)
posted by Joseph Gurl at 3:08 PM on March 27, 2010


I know it's terrible, but halfway through this thread I just started seeing Perelman as Ignatius J Reilly and now I can't stop.
posted by Ritchie at 3:53 PM on March 27, 2010


Certainly doesn't seem to be living any kind of happy life

Hard to say. Happiness is a pretty relative thing.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:58 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


True, but it's not relative to the lady he used to rent a room from, the lady who said the neighborhood had been getting rid of roaches until Mr. Perelman's squalor lured them back.

And now he's "retiring" from math...to play ping-pong by himself. Is this a middle-age virgin? If not, then close, I'm pretty sure. Happiness may be relative, but I can say for sure that's the kind of life that would make very, very few people happy. If any.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 4:47 PM on March 27, 2010


(Which is why I'm a little baffled that our first assumption seems to be that he's happy--after all, it's much more likely that he's not. I'm not saying 100% certainty, but high, high degree of likelihood.)
posted by Joseph Gurl at 4:47 PM on March 27, 2010


What I do see more of, frankly, is frustration and regret that someone who is an obvious genius and a fully grown adult is so unable to cope with the world that he's unemployed at anything to put that intellect to use, and basically living in his mom's basement.

Dude solved some high end math stuff. Mom's basement might be the perfect place for him right now, so he can chill out.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:54 PM on March 27, 2010


the neighborhood had been getting rid of roaches until Mr. Perelman's squalor lured them back.

I don't know, but this sounds like the sort of thing small-minded neighbors have been saying about people who don't quite fit in for centuries. Might not be a good idea to report that as if it were the truth.
posted by Dumsnill at 5:05 PM on March 27, 2010


Dude may well be depressed. Or have some kind of martyr-complex. Or both. Certainly doesn't seem to be living any kind of happy life (I mean, wall-ping-pong is fun for a while, but, um, eventually you're going to want someone else to play with...)

Maybe you would, and maybe I would, but that doesn't mean he would. If that time ever does come, presumably he'll find someone to play with. There are plenty of people who would give their right arm to be able to tie his shoelaces for him. If he plays by himself, I think we can be fairly certain that it's because he wants to play by himself.

And now he's "retiring" from math...to play ping-pong by himself. Is this a middle-age virgin? If not, then close, I'm pretty sure. Happiness may be relative, but I can say for sure that's the kind of life that would make very, very few people happy. If any.

Well, let's say he's not happy. So what? In any event, he's chosen to live his life this way; whether he's exactly happy or not is irrelevant. He evidently prefers this to making a pile of money and going on a lecture tour, and I can't say I blame him. You could at least do him the service of respecting his decisions to live as he wants without pitying him.

And who cares whether he's a virgin or not? Sex is neither a necessary nor sufficient component of a fulfilling life.
posted by Commander Rachek at 5:24 PM on March 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Sex is neither a necessary nor sufficient component of a fulfilling life.

There are a lot of people who would disagree with that.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:33 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I can say for sure that's the kind of life that would make very, very few people happy. If any.

In other respects, Perelman has already shown he's one of a kind. Maybe solitude is happiness, for him. Again, it's hard to say with certainty how he should be conducting his affairs. He's contributed immeasurably to the human condition, even if in a highly abstract way, so maybe it's okay if the rest of society cuts him a break or two for not wanting to be a rock star.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:34 PM on March 27, 2010


"I don't know, but this sounds like the sort of thing small-minded neighbors have been saying about people who don't quite fit in for centuries."

Ya, maybe he's a witch.

"There are a lot of people who would disagree with that."

Of course. Wouldn't make a decision of celibacy invalid.
posted by Mitheral at 7:06 PM on March 27, 2010


A lot of people are going to identify with Perelman-the-victim. He was a mascot for self-pity before this thread was half-a-day old.
posted by Brian B. at 12:54 PM on March 27 [1 favorite +] [!]


Lame trolling bro.
posted by r_nebblesworthII at 7:16 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Sex is neither a necessary nor sufficient component of a fulfilling life.

For a minuscule portion of humanity, maybe. Are you suggesting it's most likely he's a member of that near-incalculably-small group?

As for the cockroach thing, yeah, it might not be true. But I'm more likely to believe that than the half-assed armchair psychoanalysis about Perelman that this thread is gobbling up like Pac-Man power nuggets.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 7:36 PM on March 27, 2010


Sex is neither a necessary nor sufficient component of a fulfilling life.

what
posted by fixedgear at 7:49 PM on March 27, 2010


I haven't read the new yorker article or the bio book, but I can't imagine that he'd truly give up math. Maybe Math as an occupation (i.e., being associated with an academic institution), but not as an endeavor. If he does math for himself because he loves it, why give it up when he lives a relatively solitary life?

I wouldn't be at all surprised if he were doing work and trying to solve problems on his own, talking about all of the ping pong and mushrooms just to keep people away. In another fifty years, once he's gone, maybe some interesting notebooks will be found under his dirty mattress.
posted by sentient at 8:02 PM on March 27, 2010


There is a small (small, but certainly not incalculably small) percentage of the human population who simply have no interest in sex. Many of them seem reasonably happy. Isn't that fairly well-established in the relevant research?

And likelihood seems a bit pointless here. Am I likely to be Norwegian? No, but nevertheless I am. Statistically speaking, I'm Chinese.
posted by Dumsnill at 8:05 PM on March 27, 2010


Sex is neither a necessary nor sufficient component of a fulfilling life.

in vitro fertilization ftw
posted by sentient at 8:08 PM on March 27, 2010


"For a minuscule portion of humanity, maybe. Are you suggesting it's most likely he's a member of that near-incalculably-small group?"

Wikipedia goes into this quite a bit, it seems fair to say ~1% of the adult population is asexual. Even if that figure is off by an order of magnitude we're still talking 1 in 1000 adults.

And that is going on a wild assumption via heresy gossip that he is actually asexual and not merely discrete. Boy howdy, I'm really hoping my eccentricities never make the front page.
posted by Mitheral at 8:09 PM on March 27, 2010


Perelman sounds like a selfish child. At the very least Perelman is guilty of giving the vast, unwashed, innumerate masses of the world yet another reason to perpetuate the uninformed stereotype of "the crazy mathematician." At the very least he owes it to the mathematical community to play ball, since his accomplishment is of such a great magnitude and things like that happen so rarely.

Basically, he ought to have asked himself "What would Feynman do?" and do that.
posted by archae at 8:25 PM on March 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


And likelihood seems a bit pointless here. Am I likely to be Norwegian? No, but nevertheless I am. Statistically speaking, I'm Chinese.

When you're guessing--which amid all this nonsense is what we're doing--likelihood is pretty much all we have to go on. And while it's true you're a lot more likely to be Chinese than Norwegian, I wasn't guessing about that--and I'm pretty sure the odds of you being Chinese are nowhere near the odds of an adult man desiring sex or love or a ping-pong partner that isn't clothed primarily in wallpaper. Then again, hubba hubba.

It seems, though, that it's more rewarding for people to see this guy as a mysterious genius saint of enlightenment than a squalid kinda mess of a man with a great ability in a single specific area--an area that he has now abandoned. I'd rather not see things that way. I don't think it's likely to be healthy for us psychologically or accurate.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 8:36 PM on March 27, 2010


It seems, though, that it's more rewarding for people to see this guy as a mysterious genius saint of enlightenment than a squalid kinda mess of a man with a great ability in a single specific area--an area that he has now abandoned.

I agree with this, and I also dislike the armchair psychoanalysis. But rather than simply expressing your disagreement with that approach, you seem to be jumping to an even more ridiculous one: analyzing an individual based on nothing but statistics.
posted by Dumsnill at 8:44 PM on March 27, 2010


"I agree with this" was referring to the mysterious saint genius, not the rest of your sentence.
posted by Dumsnill at 8:47 PM on March 27, 2010


For the record, I didn't ever mean to imply that I think Perelman is asexual (or a virgin, or anything else in particular). I don't know whether he is and I don't care to know -- which is good, since I doubt he'd care to tell me. What's more, I didn't mean to imply that I know what he's thinking or anything of the sort. I should have been more focused on my larger point, namely that Perelman (or, for that matter, any eccentric or recluse) doesn't need your pity.

It seems, though, that it's more rewarding for people to see this guy as a mysterious genius saint of enlightenment than a squalid kinda mess of a man with a great ability in a single specific area--an area that he has now abandoned.

I certainly don't think he's a "mysterious saint of enlightenment." I think he's a regular old human being, which is why I object so strongly to the idea that his withdrawal from mathematics and from his fame are signs that there is necessarily something seriously wrong with him. Maybe there are things seriously wrong with him, but I don't know that. Until some better evidence for that comes forth than "he's weird and his neighbor doesn't like him," I am going to assume that he is quite capable of running his own life. Just because his choices aren't the ones you would make doesn't mean they're not legitimate.

Basically, he ought to have asked himself "What would Feynman do?" and do that.

Feynman resigned from the National Academy of Sciences because he thought they were more interested in congratulating themselves for being so brilliant than doing anything useful. I certainly didn't know Richard Feynman, but I think he would have more or less approved of Perelman's public actions to this point.
posted by Commander Rachek at 8:55 PM on March 27, 2010 [6 favorites]


I agree with this, and I also dislike the armchair psychoanalysis. But rather than simply expressing your disagreement with that approach, you seem to be jumping to an even more ridiculous one: analyzing an individual based on nothing but statistics.

Yeah, agreed. Maybe a little too zealous there. I suppose what I mean isn't that he's a depressed dude or whatever but that the idea that he's the other thing is ridiculous (and more unlikely). The probabilities don't add up to something I believe to be true (unlike some of the enlightenment commentators above), but I do believe they serve a purpose, if only to reveal (hopefully) the wishful thinking so many seem to have invested in this guy.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 8:55 PM on March 27, 2010


Lame trolling bro.

We're quibbling over an ingrate. His genius doesn't get a free pass because that's what the award was for, from all the other geniuses.
posted by Brian B. at 8:59 PM on March 27, 2010


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.

There are lots of US mathematicians working on understanding his proof, and using his results in their own mathematics. It's rude of Perelman to completely dismiss those efforts. You know what, those US universities probably wanted him to come and work at their schools, yes for publicity, but also so their faculty and students could learn from Perelman. He doesn't have to accept their offers, but if he wants to be a recluse (which he has every right to be; I have no beef with that), he could have just said no to the prize, and "no comment" to everything else.

Also, I have met a few Fields' medalists including Terry Tao (extremely nice, and has a great blog), and Sergei Novikov's office is just down the hall from mine (he was great teaching my topology class, and he cares a lot about math pedagogy). So those are just a couple counterexamples to the whole great mathematician => pure mind, recluse, maybe crazy person trope (which if you can't tell, I hate with the fire of a thousand blue hypergiant stars).
posted by bluefly at 5:05 AM on March 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Brian B.: "We're quibbling over an ingrate. His genius doesn't get a free pass because that's what the award was for, from all the other geniuses."

Now I feel really bad; I'm utterly brilliant and I didn't even send flowers.

So far you've called him an overpaid, tantrum-throwing, spoiled, suicidal* ingrate who hates orphans. I really hope it is just a spot of iconoclastic troll-fun as you claim! Otherwise it might stop to turn that microscope inward and examine why your emotional investment in this is so deep.

* Admittedly you hesitated a bit before calling him suicidal, so there is that.
posted by vanar sena at 5:11 AM on March 28, 2010


i dunno about perelmen but daniel tammet does some pretty awesome tricks
posted by Hammond Rye at 5:51 AM on March 28, 2010


So far you've called him an overpaid, tantrum-throwing, spoiled, suicidal* ingrate who hates orphans. I really hope it is just a spot of iconoclastic troll-fun as you claim! Otherwise it might stop to turn that microscope inward and examine why your emotional investment in this is so deep.

I never called him any of that, except an ingrate. I really hope you're as brilliant as you claim! Honestly, though, I doubt it.
posted by Brian B. at 7:57 AM on March 28, 2010


The arguments for him taking the money probably could have just been copy pasted from the Edith Macefield threads.
posted by nomisxid at 8:02 AM on March 28, 2010


Brian B.: "I never called him any of that, except an ingrate."

Oh dear, did I ascribe to you opinions and personality traits that are insufficiently supported by evidence? I apologize on behalf of myself and my hamburger.

Brian B.: "I really hope you're as brilliant as you claim! Honestly, though, I doubt it."

It's for the lulz.
posted by vanar sena at 8:43 AM on March 28, 2010


Good on him for sticking to doing what he wants to do, irrespective of what the world at large thinks. I wish I had the guts to do that.
posted by Solomon at 8:48 AM on March 28, 2010


Living in a roach magnet room--creating that roach-magnet room--and still under his mother's wing...being happy isn't exactly the only reason to turn one's back on money (or give away one's worldly possessions...or live in abject squalor...or move in with mom in middle age...).

As Perelman isn't talking to the press, I'm sceptical about the ability of the press to accurately report on his private life. They would have to get all their information second-hand, and since anyone who liked Perelman would be respecting his wishes and not blabbing to the press, the only people who would talk to the press would be people who didn't like him. According to this New Yorker article he told a friend that he had saved enough money in the United States to live on for the rest of his life.

Perelman sounds like a selfish child. At the very least Perelman is guilty of giving the vast, unwashed, innumerate masses of the world yet another reason to perpetuate the uninformed stereotype of "the crazy mathematician." At the very least he owes it to the mathematical community to play ball, since his accomplishment is of such a great magnitude and things like that happen so rarely.

You're complaining that Perelman is perpetuating the opinion that people like Perelman exist?

Are you kidding? The course of action he has taken is precisely optimal at attracting publicity to the math community. In 2006 Perelman declined the fields medal. In the same year, three other people accepted the fields medal; and it's been awarded 47 times in total. How many people here could name even one recipient, without first checking Wikipedia? Now everyone's reading articles which at the very least mention differential geometry and the Riemannian manifold.

I'm pretty sure the odds of you being Chinese are nowhere near the odds of an adult man desiring sex or love [...] a squalid kinda mess of a man

I've got this buddy who's an academic mathematician. Long hair, big bushy beard, not much of a collector of material possessions, and so on. I've lived in the same house as him; if he has a sex life, I've never seen it, or heard him talk about it.

He remains stubbornly convinced that he is happy, despite my attempts to explain to him that he is in fact miserable.
posted by Mike1024 at 3:45 PM on March 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Nothing like a single anecdote, amirite?
posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:32 PM on March 28, 2010


My anecdote is based on first-hand information gathered from someone who was not actively attempting to conceal said information.

So it's at least as reliable as the press's sources of information about Perelman's living conditions - amirite?
posted by Mike1024 at 1:08 AM on March 29, 2010


Well I know nine very intelligent math geniuses who used to live like that but later sought help and, with counseling, became sociable people with girlfriends who totally put out.

They all admitted to me that they were never happy before, no matter how much they claimed otherwise.


NINE TIMES MORE RELIABLER!
posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:40 AM on March 29, 2010


I too know people who report that having a partner makes them happier - I'm one of them :)

The reason I'm inclined to believe my buddy when he denies being unhappy is because modern happiness research indicates major life events (such as the death of a spouse) only affect happiness for six months to a year.

I'm not saying that I know for certain that Perelman is happy, and I'll admit the idea one cannot be happy without being in a relationship is a popular one.

I'm just saying that I don't think it's universally true, because I have encountered single people who were not unhappy. Given that I think people can be happy while not in a relationship, I think it's possible that Perelman could be happy while not in a relationship.
posted by Mike1024 at 10:32 AM on March 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


Since it's possible, it must be the safest assumption.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:37 PM on March 29, 2010


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