So, this year’s Fields Medals go to Terence Tao and Grisha Perelman (duhhhh), as well as to Andrei Okounkov and Wendelin Werner. The Nevanlinna Prize goes to an already-prize-bedecked Jon Kleinberg, my professor at Cornell way back in ’97. Congratulations to all!
Meanwhile, there’s a long article in yesterday’s New Yorker about Perelman and the Poincaré conjecture, by Sylvia Nasar (the media’s go-to person for reclusive mathematical geniuses) and David Gruber. Unfortunately the article’s not on the web, but fearless detective that I am, I was able to track it down in a so-called “bookstore.”
Nasar and Gruber find Perelman in a St. Petersburg apartment, where he lives with his mom, doesn’t check his mail, and just generally makes Andrew Wiles look like a hard-partying, elliptic-curve-modularizing regular dude. Perelman is nevertheless happy to grant Nasar and Gruber an interview, to confirm that he intends to be the first person in history to turn down the Fields, and to complain about his fellow mathematicians’ lax ethical standards.
What exactly is he talking about? It wasn’t clear to me, but Nasar and Gruber devote much of their article to an indictment of 1982 Fields Medalist Shing-Tung Yau, who they portray as trying to usurp credit from Perelman for the benefit of his students Xi-Ping Zhu and Huai-Dong Cao. (Zhu and Cao wrote a 328-page exposition of Perelman’s ideas, complementing other expositions by Bruce Kleiner and John Lott and by John Morgan and Gang Tian.) I have no idea to what extent, if any, the criticism of Yau is justified. But to my mind, failing to write up your result properly, and then getting upset when those who do write it up properly try to share credit, is a bit like leaving your wallet on the sidewalk and then shaking your head at human depravity when someone tries to steal it.
Nasar and Gruber also don’t comment on the obvious irony of Perelman’s “unworldliness”: that, by being such a fruitcake, he’s guaranteeing he’ll draw vastly more attention to himself than he would by just accepting the goddamned medal. (Feynman, though not exactly publicity-shy, employed similar reasoning to conclude that turning down the Nobel Prize would be a bad idea.) Indeed, supposing Perelman did aspire to celebrity status, my public-relations advice to him would be to do exactly what he’s doing right now.
Update: The New Yorker article is now online.