Skip to main content

Perfect Rigour – Masha Gessen ****

I was vaguely aware of the story at the heart of this book, so it was interesting to read a full account of it here. In 2002, the Russian mathematician Gregory Perelman solved one of the biggest problems in mathematics. By proving the Poincaré conjecture, he did what numerous top mathematicians had tried and failed to do since 1904. He was awarded the Fields medal (the mathematics equivalent of the Nobel Prize) for the breakthrough; was offered $1 million by the Clay Mathematics Institute, which in 2000 had offered the sum to anyone who could prove the conjecture; and was offered numerous top academic positions. Perelman didn’t react to this in the way most of us would have, however. He turned all of this down, withdrew completely from the mathematics community, and cut contact with long standing friends, now appearing to live a reclusive existence in St Petersburg. In Perfect Rigour, Masha Gessen aims to make sense of this.
For the book, Gessen interviewed many of Perelman’s (previously) close friends, teachers, and colleagues to get an insight into the man. We never hear from Perelman directly (he certainly doesn’t speak to journalists anymore), but from these interviews Gessen is able to build up a picture of the reasons for his retreat into his own world, and his shunning of the mathematics community, and she probably gets close to the truth of the matter.
One aspect of all this is Perelman’s apparent dislike of honours (like Feynman’s, although clearly to a much greater extent). For Perelman, it’s not the money or accolades that matter – he believes in doing maths for its own sake. It’s about the joy of the discovery, of contributing to our knowledge of the world. It shouldn’t be about prizes and there should not be financial incentives, and, because of this deep conviction, Perelman appears not to have taken kindly to the idea that work should be rewarded with material items.
But there are many other factors involved. The accolades that came Perelman’s way appear to have brought to a head a variety of deep-seated dissatisfactions he has had with the way academic mathematics is practised, and, ultimately, with the way the world works. Gessen looks at how Perelman came to have these dissatisfactions, looking in particular at the influence his schooling and upbringing had on him. Gessen is well placed to understand the impact of his early years, as she was also a young maths prodigy in Russia and of the same generation as Perelman.
As an aside, whilst Gessen doesn’t make these comparisons herself, it was interesting throughout the book to note a few similarities between Perelman and others who have made significant breakthroughs. As well as the Feynman comparison above, there’s speculation that Perelman is autistic (with this being suggested as a big factor in why he has acted as he has) and an account of how once, when asked to clarify something he had told an audience during a lecture, he repeated, word for word, what he had said in the first place – Paul Dirac used to do this. There’s also the bemusement Perelman seems to have felt about people praising him whilst not understanding the work he had done. This is reminiscent of how Einstein used to feel about some of the attention he received.
The book’s discussion of the mathematics itself is fairly limited – we get a short explanation of the Poincaré conjecture and a sketch of Perelman’s proof – and unless you have some kind of background in maths (which I don’t), these sections will probably not be hugely illuminating. I’m not sure whether anyone else could have done a better job, though – it’s an abstract problem in topology which does not lend itself to easy explanation.
In any case, you shouldn’t be put off by the difficulty of the maths, which is not the focus of the book. As an exploration of Perelman’s genius and an insight into this remarkable character, this is worth the read.
Paperback (US is hardback):  
Also on Kindle:  
Review by Matt Chorley

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

The Bastard Legion (SF) - Gavin Smith *****

Science fiction has a long tradition of 'military in space' themes - and usually these books are uninspiring at best and verging on fascist at worst. From a serious SF viewpoint, it seemed that Joe Haldeman's magnificent The Forever War made the likes of Starship Troopers a mocked thing of the past, but sadly Hollywood seems to have rebooted the concept and we now see a lot of military SF on the shelves.

The bad news is that The Bastard Legion could not be classified as anything else - but the good news is that, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer subverted the vampire genre, The Bastard Legion has so many twists on a straightforward 'marines in space' title that it does a brilliant job of subversion too.

The basic scenario is instantly different. Miska is heading up a mercenary legion, except they're all hardened criminals on a stolen prison ship, taking part because she has stolen the ship and fitted them all with explosive collars. Oh, and helping her train her &…

The Laser Inventor - Theodore Maiman ****

While the memoirs of many scientists are probably best kept for family consumption, there are some breakthroughs where the story is sufficiently engaging that it can be fascinating to get an inside view on what really happened. Although Theodore Maiman's autobiographical book is not a slick, journalist-polished account, it is very effective at highlighting two significant narratives - how Maiman was able to construct the first ever laser, despite having far fewer resources than many of his competitors, and how 'establishment' academic physicists, particularly in the US, tried to minimise his achievement.

On the straight autobiographical side, we get some early background and discover how Maiman combined degrees in electrical engineering and physics to have an unusually strong mix of the practical and the theoretical. Rather than go into academia after his doctorate, he went into industry - which seems to have been responsible for the backlash against his invention, which we…