Grigori Perelman, misfit genius?

Posted on June 7, 2010


Since the dramatic John Nash’s history got filmed in “A beautiful mind”, the topic of the “misfit genius” became one of the preferred by the mass media. And the disconcerting Russian mathematician Perelman fits the mould.

After a a precocious ascendent career in Europe and USA, he  turned down some unique academic offers in 1995 to return to his mother home and obscurity in St. Petersburg. Suddenly, in 2002, Perelman published (in the Web) the solution to the Poincaré conjecture (now a theorem), one of the great unsolved problems. After two years of research no fails where found and Perelman was awarded the Fields Medal (regarded as the Nobel for Maths) and, then, the one million dollar Clay Foundation award.

At this point his a-social personality started to clash with the usual proceedings of the world. He refused to attend the Mathematicians Congress in Madrid to receive the Medal and didn’t make it clear about the Clay Prize. His reasons?

Everybody understood that if the proof is correct, then no other recognition is needed…I don’t want to be on display like an animal in a zoo. I’m not a hero of mathematics. I’m not even that successful; that is why I don’t want to have everybody looking at me.

This attitude just sound “misfit” in a world upset down by capitalist frenzy  so, almost logically, redoubled the interest of the press, forcing him into an elusive life. No interviews where granted and just a few unexpected photos of him at the subway went public. He’s said to have been abandoned maths and personal hygiene, living in poverty with his mother, surrounded by religious icons. According to some old relatives, he believes he found the mathematical probe of God’s existence.

While a bunch of Soviet era nostalgic regards his refusal as a testimony of “patriotic communism” and Western media exactly as the “animal in a zoo” he tried to avoid to become into, the question stay alive of who is the misfit in a world which is “out of joints” as Shakespeare’s Hamlet proclaimed many centuries ago.