Brilliant & Reclusive Russian Mathematician Doesn't Need Your Prize Money

By Andrew Moseman | July 2, 2010 10:37 am

perelmanGrigori Perelman isn’t much for prizes. This week Perelman, one of the world best and strangest mathematicians, proved it again by turning down a $1 million dollar prize from the Clay Mathematics Institute Millennium Prize for solving one of the most troubling math problems of the last century.

The Poincaré conjecture, named after prominent French mathematician Henri Poincaré, involves a complex problem in the field of topology — an important area of math that studies the enduring properties of objects that are stretched or otherwise deformed, but not torn or otherwise reconstituted. Scores of prominent mathematicians tried to solve it over decades but failed, leading to its characterization as the Mount Everest of math [Washington Post].

In 2003 Perelman put forth his solution to the conjecture, but not in the traditional way of putting it through the peer review process. Instead, he simply emerged from the shadows and threw his work up on the Internet with in a rebellious, “ta-da,” and waited for the world to catch up.

After a brief barnstorming tour in the United States, during which he refused interviews, Dr. Perelman returned to Russia, leaving the world’s mathematicians to pick up the pieces and decide whether he had really done it. A worldwide race to retrace, explicate and check Dr. Perelman’s proof ensued. In the meantime, Dr. Perelman quit his post at the Steklov Mathematical Institute, moved in with his mother and ceased communicating with the outside world [The New York Times].

Therefore, confirming what Perelman had achieved took several years of work fraught with difficulty understanding his methods (and rivalry with mathematicians like Shing-Tung Yau), as documented in a great New Yorker piece on Perelman from 2006.

It was astonishingly brief for such an ambitious piece of work; logic sequences that could have been elaborated over many pages were often severely compressed. Moreover, the proof made no direct mention of the Poincaré and included many elegant results that were irrelevant to the central argument. But, four years later, at least two teams of experts had vetted the proof and had found no significant gaps or errors in it. A consensus was emerging in the math community: Perelman had solved the Poincaré. Even so, the proof’s complexity—and Perelman’s use of shorthand in making some of his most important claims—made it vulnerable to challenge. Few mathematicians had the expertise necessary to evaluate and defend it [New Yorker].

Perelman turned down the 2006 Fields Medal, and now has officially turned down the Clay prize as well. The reason, according to the reclusive Perelman, is that he built on the work of the American mathematician Richard Hamilton, who deserves as much credit as him. The Clay leaders tried to convince Perelman he should accept, since all great work is built on the shoulders of giants. But, true to form, the eccentric genius stays quiet and hidden away in Russia.

Related Content:
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DISCOVER Interview: The Math Behind the Physics Behind the Universe
DISCOVER: Top Math Stories of 2006, featuring Perelman’s achievement

Image: American Mathematical Society

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math
  • Dennis

    So easy, even a caveman can do it.

    (sorry, after seeing his photo, I couldn’t resist)

  • Jana Kamal

    He could have accepted the money and then donated it all to a charity in Russia.

    How is it then, with all his ‘brilliance’, he could not solve that ‘problem’?

  • http://www.doesnotcomputer.com/ Mark Villareal

    Donated it to a charity; thereby promoting some personal agenda by making a statement for the purpose of fluffing his own ego? The man is obviously made of equal parts humility and integrity. I’d like to see Jana accept a million and donate it to charity. Easier said than done.

  • http://thesuperunknown.free.fr/ Lionel Bijaoui

    Haha, that kind of characters are so great !

  • bob

    How Clever. Not a word about the controversy surrounding the proof of the Poincare conjecture or how a competing research group tried to claim

    credit by minimizing Perelman’s proof and contributions and tried to pass off his ideas as their own.

    Why did Perelman reject the award? Oh, he is just a recluse.

    How convenient.

    Grigory is not just stopping with his contribution to mathematics. By rejecting this “award,” he is making a tremendous contribution to ethics in

    mathematics, science and other research oriented disciplines. He *is* doing something about it by bringing the cheating, stealing and plagiarism

    of other people’s original ideas into the glare of public light. The best way for progress is by shaming the research community. The fruits of

    this shame will be worth more than a million dollars and it will be a benchmark and a warning for generations to come.

    Bravo Grigory!

  • Elissa

    Bob, your comment just doesn’t seem to make much sense. How is his rejecting the prize helpful in combating plagiarism, unless *he* actually plagiarized in order to win and that’s the point he’s trying to make? It would then be an ethical imperative to decline the prize and the money. But if in fact he did the work and deserves the credit, or at least deserves a share of the credit together with others, how does it help to reject it? Why not accept the prize on the condition that it be shared with Hamilton?

    Oh, right — he’s an eccentric genius. It must make sense to him.

  • http://www.scienceinseconds.com TMK

    I’m a science blogger visiting St. Petersburg right now and I REALLY want to see if I can meet him. He’s a dreamboat of idealalism.

    I think he has done incredible things for science by:

    a) Putting MATH on the front page
    b) Reminding the world that science isn’t about awards

    I think it is great for science. But, unfortunately, for someone that wants to be a recluse – he’s way more famous than he when he was only famous in the math world.

  • http://nasa-academy-of-the-physical-sciences.blogspot.com/ Steven A. Sylwester

    Regarding people like Grigori Perelman, please read:
    http://nasa-academy-of-the-physical-sciences.blogspot.com/

    Also, please read the discussion thread at:
    http://giftedissues.davidsongifted.org/BB/ubbthreads.php/topics/77811/Proposal_NASA_Academy_of_the_P.html

    I have proposed a nationwide public school for high school students who are exceptionally gifted in mathematics and the physical sciences. The curriculum is standard, straightforward, and universal with very few choice options. I call my proposed school “NASA Academy of the Physical Sciences.”

    Steven A. Sylwester

  • Julius Mazzarella

    One can easily recall N. Tesla did a similar thing and gave up a million dollars( back in the time of Tesla that was really a lot of cash!) so Westinghouse could stay in business long enough to realize the completion of demonstrating that AC power could be used to make people’s live a little easier. Edison’s DC current distribution was a failure. With out Tesla today we would not see such vast power grids. Tesla commeted “money does not have such value placed on it by people…if I can make other’s lives a little easier it is worth it to me not to have the money” . Similar to Tesla I believe Perelman is a true gem in the field of mathematics and physics.

  • http://www.stopcovertwar.cometc. Bán Béla Hungary

    Many peoples’ , families’ life are ruined by organized criminal groups by psychological warfare as it is described on many-many American websites .
    They would need a part of this sum .
    Yours truly Bán Béla
    I greet the people of the USA and Russia .

  • http://facebook.com/sparkicus Sparkicus

    Great guy and article. If I were professor Perelman, I’d have asked for the million in cash, in $1 denominations, so I could exercise my “purity” & “integrity” COUNTING IT! —But seriously, I would have accepted it, payed any taxes and mafiya vigs, and given the rest to a worthy cause, as others have suggested. His “integrity” would then have been multiplied. Then again, considering his reclusion and the depth of the math problem he’s been working on all this time, he might not know of any worthy causes!

  • rojas

    he is a one in a million mathematician, and one in a million human being

  • Jessica

    By some small miracle the world is changed. Whether Perelman recieves the honor by accepting monetary gain for himself or others is irrelevant.The result is the answer, it cannot be further elaborated on. The gift of a solution is exactly that, a gift. You don’t pay someone for giving you a gift do you?

  • Zachary

    Yes, yes you do when the wealthy actually offer substantial money you take it and give it to those less fortunate. His idealism is pathetic and short-sighted.

  • rabidmob

    @Sparkicus if he were to pay “mafiya vigs,” he’d be putting bullets in their guns, he’d be supporting them. How then could he claim integrity or moral correctness?

    By the way, the word is spelled mafia…

  • Dwight

    We will probably never know the real reason why Professor Perelman would not accept the award money. Russia is different but not in the way we read and hear about; example, in Russia you are not expected to tip for services. I have visited Russia, the oridinary Russian people are good people and do indeed seem honorable, humble and friendly. Several times in line I could not determine what bills to give a cashier and to avoid delaying people I just handed them the money. Later I figured out what I paid and was never over charged. From the little bit I know of Russian people I like them and admire themvery much, we in the US could learn a lot from the Russian people. Congratulations to Professor Perelman, a virtual unknown who is now quietly a giant.

  • Amos

    he’s clearly a simple person in many ways, to him it’s just an unneeded complication, something he has no desire for. if he doesn’t communicate with the outside world and is producing amazing works, he must be quite happy where he is, doing what he’s doing. he doesn’t care what others think or about pleasing them, he’s just being a good neighbor to give them something valuable that he did for fun. i have some friends like this, and understand this personality well.

  • http://iitomonippon.com/448 マッコリ

    マッコリとは、韓国の大衆向け醸造酒の一つ。日本のどぶろくに相当する。仮名表記では、
    マッカリ、マッコルリとも書くマッコリには強い甘味がある。これは麹により糖化された米の甘味である。
    微かな酸味と炭酸発泡の味がする。醗酵の進み過ぎたマッコリは酸味と炭酸が強烈になる。アルコール度数は6~8%(ビール程度)である。

  • roy

    マッコリ is right.. though i can’t understand him/her ( i don’t even know the gender), i think what his/her saying has a sense..

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    @ Jana and others:

    The Clay Mathematics Institute, which awards the Millennium Prizes, will do something charitable with the $1 million that Perelman declined. The Institute says it use the prize money to benefit mathematics, and will announce the details of its plan this fall.

    – Eliza, DISCOVER online news editor

  • Nemesis

    $1M is a drop in the bucket compared to the endorsement deal he signed with Gillette.

  • George

    He really wanted to prove something, hope he will reveal it. About charity may be, it is everyone’s responsibility and I agree with Elisa Strickland.

  • DR. EDWARD SIEGEL

    BRAVO GRIGORY PERELMAN!!!
    IRONICALLY IS A BOOK “A CRITICAL REVIEW OF HOW PHYSICS AND ASTRONOMY GETS DONE” EDITED BY ANOTHER (CARLOS CASTRO) PERELMAN, AND MARTIN LOPEZ CORREDOIRA(UNIVERSAL PUBLISHERS; BOCA RATON (2008) HIGHLIGHTING JUST SUCH RAMPANT BRIAN MARTIN/JOHN BRADSHAW/EDWARD SIEGEL/… IDENTIFIED SOCIOLOGICAL-DYSFUNCTIONALITY OF THE “SEANCES”(INSIDERS WHO CIRCLE THE WAGONS AND HOLD HANDS TO KEEP OUTSIDERS OUT)/WOULD BE “SCIENCES”. THE SYLVIA NASAR-DAVID GRUBER NEW YORKER ARTICLE ON PERELMAN HIGHLIGHTS THIS AND THE CARLSON-YAU AND HIS GANG PERFIDITY.
    I MYSELF, A THEORETICAL-PHYSICIST OUTSIDER TO “PURE”-MATHEMATICS, HAVE RUN INTO THIS NONSENSE, HAVING HAD “SPIKED” ALL ABSTRACTS SUBMITTED TO THE AMERICAN MATHEMATICAL SOCIETY-MATHEMATICAL ASSOCIATION OF AMERICA JOINT MEETINGS TWICE, BOTH IN 2006 AND 2010, IN WHICH I, USING ARISTOTLE’S LONG-FORGOTTEN “SQUARE-OF-OPPOSITION” DEDUCTION, PROVED THREE OTHER MILLENIUM-PROBLEMS:
    BIRCH AND SWINNERTON-DYER CONJECTURE,
    P =/= NP(ABSOLUTELY TRIVIAL SPECIAL CASE OF NEXT),
    AND FERMAT’S LAST-THEOREM(DONE BY WILES IN SOME 18 YEARS IN 1994, BUT BY SIEGEL IN 15 MINUTES TO GRADUATE FROM C.C.N.Y. 1964, SOME 30 YEARS EARLIER).
    AND SOON THE RIEMANN-HYPOTHESIS MILLENNIUM-PROBLEM,
    ACTUALLY RIEMANN-(CARL LUDWIG; A THIRD COUSIN)SIEGEL HYPOTHESIS SEEMS AMENABLE TO SOME COMBINED SOLID-STATE/CONDENSED-MATTER AND NUCLEAR PHYSICS CONSIDERATIONS!!!

    DR. EDWARD SIEGEL
    “PHYSICAL-MATHEMATICIST”/”MATHSICIST”
    FUZZYICS=CATEGORYICS (“SON OF ‘TRIZ’”)
    FUZZYICS@SAN.RR.COM
    LA JOLLA, CALIFORNIA, USA

  • DR. EDWARD SIEGEL

    Physics’ Simple 4-Step “Plane”-Geometry Dimension-Theory Proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem (FLT) via Noether’s-Theorem(NT)/Fermat’s-Principle (FP) Translational/Momentum(?)/Scale(??)-Invariance Symmetry-Breaking/ Non-Conservation VIA Classic Greek Ancient Aristotle “Square-of-Opposition” Deduction
    [DONE IN 15 MINUTES AT C.C.N.Y./C.U.N.Y. ON DIFERENTIAL-GEOMETRY FINAL IN 1964: 1964(Siegel) <<2, any-integer-x,y,z) solutions can exist (vs. Pythagorean-Theorem (PT) solutions at n = 2 for any-x,y,z, and/or FLT at n > 2 and any-non-integer-x,y,z). PT: for (n = 2, any-x,y,z) right-triangle prototype.
    Short succinct physicists’ proof:
     (1.) 2 assumptions:
     (a) triangle indivisible "atoms" are (3)-edges (intersecting in (3)-vertices);
     (b) all (3)-edges must be maximally used-up between (3)-vertices (no edge-to-vertex: undershoot “gaps”/deficits nor overshoot/dangling segments waving-“flags” allowed!).
     (2.) Triangle’s (3)-vertices determine a plane! PT exponent (n =D = 2) is its planar-dimensionality D!:
    PT is really: !
     (3.) FLT proof:
     Either:
     (i) try but fail to understand Wiles-Ribet-...proof for all eternity, or
     (ii) by above dimensionality-insight Dimension-theory
    [Karl Menger, "Dimensiontheorie, Teubner(1929)] show FLT INequality by definition can have no possible solutions for any-(n D > 2) and any-integer-x,y,z: .
     Via (4.) CCNY physicists’ end-run insight, (ii) is Absolutely Trivial!!!
     (5.) Heuristically: PT right-triangle (thumb, forefinger, other-hand forefinger) embedded in (nD=2)-plane, two assumptions (a),(b) dictate its higher-dimensionality FLT extension/un-projection must break plane-triangle only at a vertex (rotate other-hand’s forefinger upward to some angle for some(n=D>2)). For this “’sundial’ on PT-plane” all-possible back-projections (n =D > 2 to n =D = 2) (except only one trivial exact back-projection-reversing measure-zero set), form non-triangles broken at a would-be vertex, either “gap” or “flag”, both forbidden!
     (6.) FLT crucial x,y,z = all-integers-only condition is “physics” subtlety: for any non-integer-x,y,z, “gap”/“flag”, repair by incrementally/fractionally telescoping/extending edge-length is translational-(or scale?)-invariance symmetry-restoring, hence solutions exist (non-FLT “=”).
     Versus for any-x,y,z  Z “gaps”/”flags” cannot be so healed; FLT (“”) INequality!
    No solutions can possibly exist! QED FIN. I.e. Importantly/more directly: Noether’s-theorem (NT):
    (non-Z) translational-(or scale?)-invariance continuous-symmetry-restoring conservation-law/convergence
    versus
    (Z) translational-invariance continuous-symmetry-breaking non-conservation-law/divergence
    directly proves FLT since two INequalities IDENTICAL: (“″)_(NT) = (“″)_(FLT)!
    Earliest(?) NT was Fermat’s (FP): (“″)_(FP)  (“″)_(NT) = (“″)_(FLT)!!! QED FIN.
    In then-unified “Natural Philosophy” (physics = mathematics), why should Fermat repeat his very own “physics” FP to prove his own “mathematics” FLT when their identical “ ”’s make them an identity? Hence no “proof” needed in his margin!
    What possibly can momentum-energy 4-vector , the formal Noether-4-current Dichotomy: conservation versus non-conservation, have to do with ostensibly “pure”-“mathematics” proof of Fermat’s last-theorem via Fermat’s-principle of least-action? Simply, for momentum 3-vector (alone) conservation, the 3-vectors must form a closed-triangle, versus for momentum non-conservation, the would-be momentum-conservation triangle is broken open into a non-triangle with gaps and/or flags. Then its 3-divergence obeys Dichotomy: zero versus non-zero, i. e. versus . But as well, its energy fourth-component time-derivative obeys Dichotomy: zero versus non-zero, i. e. (i. e. energy can and does not “leak out” of “system” as time evolves), versus (i. e. energy can and does “leak out” of “system” as time evolves). Taken all together the Noether’s-theorem Dichotomy is: energy-momentum 4-vector conservation versus non-conservation, i. e. versus .
    Superset Shimura-Taniyam-Weil once-conjecture now theorem-with-proof may so simplify via “physics” so succinctly, if ab initio functionally-illiterate in mathematics non-conocce mere physicists could only understand even its statement!
    Edward Siegel
    “Physical-Mathematicist”/”Mathsicist”
    fuzzyics@san.rr.com; fuzzyics@cox.net
    “FUZZYICS”=”Categoryics” (“Son of ‘TRIZ’”)
    @ Pacific Beach Institute for the Utter-Simplicity of (So-MIS-Called) “Complexity” Optimality(PBISCO) and @ La Jolla Institute for the Utter-Simplicity of (So-MIS-Called) “Complexity” Optimality (LAJISCO)
    1111 Hornblende, San Diego,CA. 92109; 1633 Diamond Street/#38, San Diego, CA. 92109-3165 ; 6655 La Jolla Blvd., La Jolla, CA.92037; 3250 South Town Center Dr./#3094, Summerlin, Las Vegas, NV. 89135

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