Friday, July 02, 2010

russian mathematician rejects $1 million prize

WaPo | Who would turn down a $1 million prize for solving a math problem?

Perhaps the smartest man in the world.

Three months ago, a famously impoverished Russian mathematician named Grigori Perelman was awarded the prestigious $1 million Clay Mathematics Institute Millennium Prize for his groundbreaking work -- having solved a problem of three-dimensional geometry that had resisted scores of brilliant mathematicians since 1904.

Thursday, the institute announced that Perelman, known equally for his brilliance and his eccentricities, formally and finally turned down the award and the money. He didn't deserve it, he told a Russian news service, because he was following a mathematical path set by another.

The president of the Clay Institute, James Carlson, said that Perelman was a mathematician of "extraordinary power and creativity" and that it was he alone who solved the intractable Poincaré's conjecture. "All mathematicians follow the work of others, but only a handful make breakthroughs of this magnitude," Carlson said.

Still, while he had been hopeful that Perelman would take the prize, he was hardly surprised that he did not. Perelman had already turned down several of the world's top awards in mathematics. And when he solved the Poincaré conjecture, he ignored the peer-review process and simply posted his three-part solution online. That was in 2003.

It took other mathematicians two years to determine that he had indeed solved the problem.

"The community knew about Perelman, and that's why they took him seriously," Carlson said. "But what he did is definitely not the way things are normally done."

Immediately after his postings, Perelman was invited to lecture at several top American universities, and did so with aplomb. Speaking in fluent English, he wowed his math colleagues and, after returning to Russia, continued to communicate via e-mail with some about his work. Within several years, however, he stopped responding and left the math world, Carlson said.