On the evening of June 20th, several hundred physicists, including a Nobel laureate, assembled in an auditorium at the Friendship Hotel in Beijing for a lecture by the Chinese mathematician Shing-Tung Yau. In the late nineteen-seventies, when Yau was in his twenties, he had made a series of breakthroughs that helped launch the string-theory revolution in physics and earned him, in addition to a Fields Medal—the most coveted award in mathematics—a reputation in both disciplines as a thinker of unrivalled technical power.
Yau had since become a professor of mathematics at Harvard and the director of mathematics institutes in Beijing and Hong Kong, dividing his time between the United States and China. His lecture at the Friendship Hotel was part of an international conference on string theory, which he had organized with the support of the Chinese government, in part to promote the country’s recent advances in theoretical physics. (More than six thousand students attended the keynote address, which was delivered by Yau’s close friend Stephen Hawking, in the Great Hall of the People.) The subject of Yau’s talk was something that few in his audience knew much about: the Poincaré conjecture, a century-old conundrum about the characteristics of three-dimensional spheres, which, because it has important implications for mathematics and cosmology and because it has eluded all attempts at solution, is regarded by mathematicians as a holy grail.
Yau, a stocky man of fifty-seven, stood at a lectern in shirtsleeves and black-rimmed glasses and, with his hands in his pockets, described how two of his students, Xi-Ping Zhu and Huai-Dong Cao, had completed a proof of the Poincaré conjecture a few weeks earlier. “I’m very positive about Zhu and Cao’s work,” Yau said. “Chinese mathematicians should have every reason to be proud of such a big success in completely solving the puzzle.” He said that Zhu and Cao were indebted to his longtime American collaborator Richard Hamilton, who deserved most of the credit for solving the Poincaré. He also mentioned Grigory Perelman, a Russian mathematician who, he acknowledged, had made an important contribution. Nevertheless, Yau said, “in Perelman’s work, spectacular as it is, many key ideas of the proofs are sketched or outlined, and complete details are often missing.” He added, “We would like to get Perelman to make comments. But Perelman resides in St. Petersburg and refuses to communicate with other people.”
For ninety minutes, Yau discussed some of the technical details of his students’ proof. When he was finished, no one asked any questions. That night, however, a Brazilian physicist posted a report of the lecture on his blog. “Looks like China soon will take the lead also in mathematics,” he wrote.
Grigory Perelman is indeed reclusive. He left his job as a researcher at the Steklov Institute of Mathematics, in St. Petersburg, last December; he has few friends; and he lives with his mother in an apartment on the outskirts of the city. Although he had never granted an interview before, he was cordial and frank when we visited him, in late June, shortly after Yau’s conference in Beijing, taking us on a long walking tour of the city. “I’m looking for some friends, and they don’t have to be mathematicians,” he said. The week before the conference, Perelman had spent hours discussing the Poincaré conjecture with Sir John M. Ball, the fifty-eight-year-old president of the International Mathematical Union, the discipline’s influential professional association. The meeting, which took place at a conference center in a stately mansion overlooking the Neva River, was highly unusual. At the end of May, a committee of nine prominent mathematicians had voted to award Perelman a Fields Medal for his work on the Poincaré, and Ball had gone to St. Petersburg to persuade him to accept the prize in a public ceremony at the I.M.U.’s quadrennial congress, in Madrid, on August 22nd.
The Fields Medal, like the Nobel Prize, grew, in part, out of a desire to elevate science above national animosities. German mathematicians were excluded from the first I.M.U. congress, in 1924, and, though the ban was lifted before the next one, the trauma it caused led, in 1936, to the establishment of the Fields, a prize intended to be “as purely international and impersonal as possible.”
However, the Fields Medal, which is awarded every four years, to between two and four mathematicians, is supposed not only to reward past achievements but also to stimulate future research; for this reason, it is given only to mathematicians aged forty and younger. In recent decades, as the number of professional mathematicians has grown, the Fields Medal has become increasingly prestigious. Only forty-four medals have been awarded in nearly seventy years—including three for work closely related to the Poincaré conjecture—and no mathematician has ever refused the prize. Nevertheless, Perelman told Ball that he had no intention of accepting it. “I refuse,” he said simply.
Over a period of eight months, beginning in November, 2002, Perelman posted a proof of the Poincaré on the Internet in three installments. Like a sonnet or an aria, a mathematical proof has a distinct form and set of conventions. It begins with axioms, or accepted truths, and employs a series of logical statements to arrive at a conclusion. If the logic is deemed to be watertight, then the result is a theorem. Unlike proof in law or science, which is based on evidence and therefore subject to qualification and revision, a proof of a theorem is definitive. Judgments about the accuracy of a proof are mediated by peer-reviewed journals; to insure fairness, reviewers are supposed to be carefully chosen by journal editors, and the identity of a scholar whose pa-per is under consideration is kept secret. Publication implies that a proof is complete, correct, and original.
by Sylvia Nasar and David Gruber
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