You have solved one of mathematics’ most intractable problems. Do you a) accept a US$1 million reward, or b) reject the money, barricade yourself inside your apartment and refuse to answer the door? The answer, if you are the reclusive Russian genius Grigory Perelman, is b).
The Clay Mathematics Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, last week honored Perelman for his solution to a problem posed almost a century ago by French mathematician Henri Poincare. The theorem — known as Poincare’s conjecture — involves the deep structure of three-dimensional shapes. It is one of seven elusive challenges set by the institute, each carrying a US$1 million reward. It took the world’s leading mathematicians several years to verify that Perelman had definitively solved the problem in a paper published in 2002.
Perelman, however, doesn’t want the cash. This latest snub follows his refusal in 2006 to collect the mathematics equivalent of an Oscar, the Fields Medal. Perelman is currently jobless and lives with his mother and sister in a small flat in St Petersburg.
Perelman refuses to talk to the journalists camped outside his home. One who managed to reach him on his cell phone was told: “You are disturbing me. I am picking mushrooms.”
The handful of neighbors who have seen him paint a picture of a scruffily dressed eccentric.
“He always wears the same tatty coat and trousers. He never cuts his nails or beard. When he walks he simply stares at the ground, rather than looking from side to side,” one told a Moscow newspaper.
“He has rather strange moral principles. He feels tiny improper things very strongly,” said Sergei Kisliakov, director of St Petersburg’s Steklov Mathematics Institute, where the math prodigy once worked as a researcher.
Kisliakov said Perelman quit the world of mathematics in disgust four years ago. His decision to spurn the Fields Medal may have been driven by a sense that his fellow mathematicians were not worthy to award it.
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