Petersburg's Reclusive Genius

Irina Titova. Russian Life. Volume 49, Issue 6. November/December 2006.

In August, Russian mathematician Grigory Perelman refused the highest honor a mathematician can be given—the Fields Medal, for his solving of the Poincaré conjecture, an immensely difficult problem relating to three-dimensional objects that has vexed scientists for a century. What is more, he has expressed little interest in receiving the $1 million prize likely to be offered by the Clay Math Institute, for solving one of the millennium's seven most difficult math hypotheses, of which Poincaré is one. Reclusive and eccentric, Perelman has given few interviews. Russian Life talked to his teachers and friends.

"Grigory is a devoted scientist in the purest sense of this word," said Serge Rukshin, one of Perelman's former teachers and scientific supervisors. Rukshin heads St. Petersburg's Math Center for Gifted Children, which Perelman attended as a boy. "He is not about money or recognition," Rukshin continued. "He cares only about math."

Even the way Perelman, 40, presented his solution to Poincaré was unusual and showed that he had little interest in fame or fortune. Rather than pursue publication in a peer-reviewed journal, beginning on November 11, 2002, he posted his results on the Internet at arXiv.org, a website where mathematicians from around the world post electronic preprints of their work. The paper was titled, "The Entropy Formula for the Ricci Flow and Its Geometric Applications." He then emailed an abstract of his paper to a dozen mathematicians in the U.S. In April 2003, Perelman traveled to the U.S. to deliver a series of lectures on his proofs, and in July 2003, he posted two more papers on arXiv.org, rounding out the results of his research.

After Perelman rejected the Fields Medal this summer, he shut himself off from reporters, leading some in the media to speculate that he was more than eccentric, even for a math genius, that he must be simply crazy. A paparazzi photo published in Komsomolskaya Pravda shows Perelman with long, fuzzy hair, a long beard and inch-and-a-half long fingernails.

Rukshin refuted the suggestion. "He is absolutely normal," he said. "And he is not a recluse, as some say. Grigory goes places. He loves opera and goes to performances and concerts. He talks to his friends, to me. As for his beard, it doesn't matter."

Rukshin said that Perclman simply may not care about the Clay Institute's million dollar prize. "He is just such a person who cares only about science, even though money would provide the needed support for him and his mother—they both live on her small pension."

In reality, Perelman's rejection of the world's top math award may not stem simply from ascetism. Sir John Ball, chair of the Fields Medal Committee and president of the International Mathematical Union, told a news conference in August that he spent two fruitless days in St. Petersburg trying to convince Perelman to accept the medal. Ball said Perelman's refusal "centered on his feelings of isolation from the mathematical community. Consequently, he doesn't want to be a figurehead of that community. He obviously has a different kind of psychology from other people," Ball said, as reported by the Associated Press.

Perelman has paid a high price for his achievement. Not only did he spend eight years solving Poincaré, but he also lost his job at St. Petersburg's Steklov Math Institute, and he had to face a slew of unfair criticism and distrust from St. Petersburg's scientific community, Rukshin said.

In 2003, Perelman was forced to leave Steklov's Geometry and Topology Laboratory. According to official explanations, he failed to publish the required number of research papers and the institute's administration decided not to reappoint him to his position. This had a devastating effect.

"I think he still feels badly offended by distrust from his 'scientific family' at the Institute and in the city and in the country," Rukshin said. "Many thought he lacked talent. Who knows, maybe it is more important for him to have those people admit that he wasn't a poor scientist than it is to get a million dollars."

Later, through the support of academician Olga Ladyzhenskaya, Perelman got a research position at Steklov's Laboratory of Mathematical Physics. But this lab's specialty was outside Perelman's research area of geometric topology. So, on January 1, 2006, he quit.

Perelman said in an interview with The New Yorker that he had to break completely with his profession at the prospect of getting a Fields Medal. "As long as I was not conspicuous, I had a choice," Perelman said. "Either to make some ugly thing"—a fuss about the math community's lack of integrity—"or, if I didn't do this kind of thing, to be treated as a pet. Now, when I become a very conspicuous person, I cannot stay a pet and say nothing. That is why I had to quit."

The Fields Medal is awarded once every four years to at least two and not more than four mathematicians. It is only given to mathematicians 40 and younger. Only 44 medals have ever been given out; it has never before been refused.

For now, Grigory Perelman is unemployed. He and his mother live on her modest pension in a small apartment in Kupchino, on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. He received job offers from international universities while on fellowships in the U.S. from 1992-1994 and after he had posted his Poincaré solution, but he has turned all of them down, saying he works better in his homeland. In Russia, an average math researcher makes about 6,000 rubles ($220) a month.

Rukshin said he feared that Perelman's anger with Steklov and the media frenzy surrounding the Fields Medal could force him to "give up science entirely."

Indeed, Perelman said as much in a phone conversation with Alexander Abramov, a member of Russian Education Academy, on August 23, after the International Math Union named Perelman as one of four Fields Medal winners.

"I got worried because, from our conversation, I understood that Grigory might give up on math," Abramov said. "He said he was going to go for a different profession that requires less math. Now I'm most worried about how he feels and what will happen to him. He is a brilliant mathematician. Such talents should not disappear."

Abramov said Perelman's voice was calm ("he was always a balanced man") and that he would not explain why he was rejecting the Fields Medal. "I've known him since 1982, and I had a feeling that he behaved very differently," Abramov said. "At the same time, I can, of course, understand that such talented people might have their own principles. Another thing I can add is that it is abnormal that such great people lose their jobs in our country and become unemployed."

In his interview with The New Yorker, Perelman said that he had "retired from the mathematics community and no longer considered himself a professional mathematician." Referring in that interview to a dispute years before with a colleague, he said he was dismayed by lax ethics in mathematics. "It is not people who break ethical standards who are regarded as aliens," he said. "It is people like me who are isolated."

Perelman's parents recognized Gregory's abilities math early, and brought him to Rukshin's City Math Center for Gifted Children. Perelman's mother, Lyubov, taught high school math. She was a talented student, but did not go into research, as she was busy raising two children—Grigory has a younger sister Yelena, who also specialized in math, is now married and lives in Sweden.

Grigory's late father was an engineer and also encouraged his interest in math, giving him challenging tilings to read and teaching him chess.

Later, Rukshin directed Perelman to St. Petersburg's famed Math and Physics School #239, which has an impressive roster of alumni, including mathematician Yuri Matiysevich, world chess champion Alexander Khalifman, Russian health minister Mikhail Zurabov and a Founding Father of Russian rock, Boris Grebenshchikov.

In 1982, when he was 16, Perelman won the International Math Olympics, held in Budapest. He scored an almost impossible 42 out of 42. Even so, Rukshin noted that Perelman "had great difficulty getting on the country's team because of his Jewish family name."

Interestingly, Perelman excelled not only in his beloved math, but in other subjects as well. The only subject that gave him problems, Rukshin said, was P.E., yet he did play ping-pong quite well. He also developed a deep interest in classical opera at an early age, and loves to sit in a specific seat, high in the balcony of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, and listen to today's best performers.

Rukshin said he did not know why Perelman became interested in Poincare specifically, but commented that "what I know is that, spending years on solving such difficult tasks is the greatest emotional labor. You know, it's very hard to live without a feeling of achievement. Mathematicians may have no success for years. That's when they need emotional support from others. I think Perelman experienced that emotional stress, and at that time he very much needed the support of his colleagues, but he could not get it."

Tamara Yefimova, director of School #239, recalled Perelman's beautiful eyes, curly hair and exceptional modesty. "When he came to my classes, I always felt he knew even more than we were studying. However, neither by word or a look, did he ever show that he already knew the material, and knew it better than the others," she said.

"Grigory is a real scientist who is interested in nothing but his math. He is not a career man and he is not ambitious," she said.

"By nature, Perelman is a man of honor," Rukshin said. "He is one of those people one wants to have close when difficult times come."

Maxim Pratusevich, deputy director of School #239, said that Perelman returns to the school every March to act as a jury member and help select entrants for the City Math Olympics.

"He is a rather strict judge, but he is fair," Pratusevich said. "Perelman is obviously a man not of this world, and he is a genius. Such people are born once every century."