Book review: Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century by Masha Gessen

Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century by Masha Gessen
Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century
by Masha Gessen. Source: Goodreads.

This is a book about the mathematician, Grigori Perelman. Grigori Perelman is known for solving the Poincaré conjecture. Poincaré conjecture is one of the Millennium Prize Problems. Millennium Prize Problems are seven problems that are stated by Clay Mathematics Institute in 2000 including the Poincaré conjecture, P vs NP problem, etc. These are some of the hardest problems in mathematics. Most mathematicians would not expect any to be solved within their lifetime. Poincaré conjecture is the only one solved so far, in 2003 by Perelman.

Not only did he solved one of the toughest problems in mathematics, he declined to accept the Fields Medal (described as the Nobel Prize in Mathematics), European Congress of Mathematics medal, and the Millennium Prize. This book seeks to understand why.

The author traces the history of Perelman to the early Soviet Union, how the anti-establishment mentality fostered in the early Russian mathematical community. Then, the early life of Perelman, from his mother, his tutor, his involvement in the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO), his stay at United States, and back to Russia. He is a very ethical man, this quality is why his tutor Rukshin chose him. He returned the grant money left over, argued that this is not his to keep. This may be because in his aspergian mind, this violates his rules. He viewed the world as what it should be, and not the ugly side as in reality.

The author also suspect that Perelman has Aspergers Syndrome, and interviewed autism expert such as Simon Baron-Cohen and quote Tony Attwood. This is interesting because I myself has suspected to have aspergers by psychiatrist. I see some parallel between him and I. The exactitude of rules, inability to picture from others point of view, see politics as pointless, awkwardness, etc.

It makes me angry that some Chinese Mathematicians tried to take credit despite Perelman already solved the problem. Due to the fact that mathematics community gives the recognition to the final solver of the problem (and not the people who contributed in the pieces), i.e. the Fermat’s Last Theorem honors Andrew Wiles. They tried to frame the situation as Perelman being a “giant” contributor of the past to the solution, that is only part of the solution, and not the final solver of the problem. There are more politics going on than actual merit.

The book gives a good view on why Perelman dislikes the mathematical community and why he declined the awards. He is angry that the Princeton mathematicians does not give him tenure as professor despite showing that he deserved it. This was before he proved the Poincaré conjecture. And after he proved it, everyone flocked to give him honors and jobs, despite him already capable before proving to the world, why only now that the world approve of him?

This book has little mathematical content, mostly explaining Poincaré conjecture relating to Topology, and some terms such as Ricci Flow, surgery, etc.

Rating: 4/5

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