Why Brilliant People Should Not Win The Lottery

August 23, 2006

There is Sanity Squad brilliance and then there is another kind of brilliance.

ST. PETERSBURG A reclusive Russian who was honored with the mathematical world’s highest award for solving a problem that has stumped some of the discipline’s greatest minds for a century has rejected the award.

The mathematician, Grigory Perelman, refused to accept the prestigious Fields Medal and said Tuesday that he would explain himself “in several months.”

“I will not tell you anything; I refuse to give interviews,” Perelman said by telephone from an apartment in St. Petersburg that he reportedly shares with his mother just outside the city. “I will not even tell you why I’m refusing to speak about the prize. Call me in several months.”

The Fields Medal, which has often been described as the mathematics’ equivalent to the Nobel Prize, is given every four years.

Perelman is known not only for his work on the Poincaré conjecture – among the most heralded unsolved math problems – but also because he has declined previous mathematical prizes and has turned down job offers from Princeton, Stanford and other universities.

He has said that he wants no part of the $1 million that the Clay Mathematics Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has offered for the first published proof of the conjecture.

Beginning in 2002, Perelman, who was then at the Steklov Institute of Mathematics of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, published a series of papers on the Internet and gave lectures at several U.S. universities describing how he had overcome a roadblock in the proof of the Poincaré conjecture.

The conjecture, devised by Henri Poincaré in 1904, essentially says that the only shape that does not have any holes and fits within a finite space is a sphere.

That is certainly true looking at two- dimensional surfaces in the everyday three-dimensional world, but the conjecture says the same is true for three- dimensional surfaces embedded in four dimensions.

Perelman solved a difficult problem that other mathematicians had encountered when trying to prove the conjecture by using a technique called Ricci flow that smoothes out bumps in a surface and transforms the surfaces into simpler forms.

The medal was conceived by John Charles Fields, a Canadian mathematician, “in recognition of work already done and as an encouragement for further achievements on the part of the recipient.”

Since 1936, when the medal was first awarded, judges have interpreted the terms of Fields’s trust fund to mean that the award should usually be limited to mathematicians 40 or younger. Perelman is 40.

Perelman, who keeps a low profile, said Tuesday that he had “spent the day watching television.”

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One Response to “Why Brilliant People Should Not Win The Lottery”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Ehh, if he’s an academic of today’s definition, and when he does come forward to state why he didn’t accept the prize, the reason will be to make some minor philosophical point.

    Either that or he’s a sham. But that’s too cynical for me and far less entertaining.


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