Monday, August 28, 2006

"Reclusive Genius," a Letter in response to "The Math Was Complex,

Below (#1) is the letter to the editor of the NY Times on the reclusive mathematician Perelman that was actually published (!). It comments on the week in review article (#2). It was also based on reading a long article in the New Yorker (#3).

Reclusive Genius (1 Letter)
Published: September 3, 2006
Re “The Math Was Complex, the Intentions, Strikingly Simple” (Week in Review, Aug. 27):
I read with great interest your article about Grigory Perelman, the Russian mathematician who refused to accept the highest honor in mathematics, the Fields Medal.
Whatever Dr. Perelman’s true motivations are, it has certainly made him something of a hero in the scientific community; he apparently puts deep thought and seeking knowledge ahead of personal accolades and career recognition in marked contrast to many of his prominent colleagues.
One cannot help but wonder whether the way that Dr. Perelman sequestered himself from the minutiae of academic life and from e-mail and correspondence altogether is a principal reason he has been able to think so deeply about a problem.
Perhaps tranquil reclusion is a prerequisite for brilliant thought, as evident in other legendary geniuses like Newton and Darwin.
Mark Gerstein
New Haven, Aug. 28, 2006
The writer is a professor of biomedical informatics and molecular biophysics at Yale.

The Math Was Complex, the Intentions, Strikingly Simple
Published: August 27, 2006
LONG before John Forbes Nash, the schizophrenic Nobel laureate fictionalized
onscreen in “A Beautiful Mind,” mathematics has been infused with the legend of
the mad genius cut off from the physical world and dwelling in a separate realm
of numbers. In ancient times, there was Pythagoras, guru of a cult of geometers,
and Archimedes, so distracted by an equation he was scratching in the sand that
he was slain by a Roman soldier. Pascal and Newton in the 17th century, Gödel in
the 20th — each reinforced the image of the mathematician as ascetic, forgoing a
regular life to pursue truths too rarefied for the rest of us to understand....

A legendary problem and the battle over who solved it.
Issue of 2006-08-28
Posted 2006-08-21
On the evening of June 20th, several hundred physicists, including a Nobel
laureate, assembled in an auditorium at the Friendship Hotel in Beijing for a
lecture by the Chinese mathematician Shing-Tung Yau. In the late
nineteen-seventies, when Yau was in his twenties, he had made a series of
breakthroughs that helped launch the string-theory revolution in physics and
earned him, in addition to a Fields Medal—the most coveted award in
mathematics—a reputation in both disciplines as a thinker of unrivalled
technical power. ... When a member of a hiring committee at Stanford asked him
for a C.V. to include with requests for letters of recommendation, Perelman
balked. “If they know my work, they don’t need my C.V.,” he said. “If they need
my C.V., they don’t know my work.”... 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.”
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