Why Grigori Perelman rejected his award

By Jessika Endsley

Grigori Perelman was born in Russia in 1966 to Jewish parents - an electrical engineer and a mathematics teacher. Both parents were quite mathematically inclined and encouraged logical thinking and the study of mathematics in their son. They gave up their own work in the subject, but by age ten, Grigori was taking part in Sergei Rukshin's math-training program after school. He had already shown great potential in the field of mathematics. Moving on to a high school specializing in mathematics and physics, where he competed in International Mathematical Olympiad, he won the the first of many prizes to be offered to him in his life; a gold medal. Perelman also played chess very well, broadening his non-math hobbies only slightly from violin to the mildly social game. Acquaintances from his early life noted that, by college, Grigori had already developed into being quite the hermit. He graduated from college with a Candidate of Science Degree (a PhD) from Leningrad State University. Despite his Jewish heritage, he was accepted into the Leningrad branch of the Steklov Mathematics Institute after Alekandrov made a rare request for such an allowance. Grigori moved on to work at several universities in the United States at age twenty-six, quickly winning the Young Mathematician Prize for his work on Aleksandrov's spaces of curvature, and he spent a semester afterward Ricci curvature. Colleagues took note of his long hair and fingernails, his preference for wearing the same thing day after day as well eating the same thing each day as well. After a two-year Miller Research Fellowship, he returned to Steklov Institute in Saint Petersburg in Russia to research, after rejecting multiple jobs from top universities in the United States. Acquaintances and people who worked closely to Perelman may have noted his peculiar ways, but is it not common for geniuses to be a bit odd?

Grigori Perelman

Grigori Perelman

Perelman's work with the Soul Theorem took him out of obscurity and into the public light in 1994, where he first discovered that public recognition certainly did not appeal to him. But he did not rise into the spotlight nearly as much from his breakthrough work with the Soul Theorem as he did when solving the Poincare Conjecture, after having realized that mathematician Richard Hamilton had run into a block while working on it. The Poincare Conjecture had been proposed in 1904 by Henry Poincare and over time would become a highly dissected and speculated conjecture; one which $1,000,000 would be offered to the mathematician with the proof. Upon reading Hamilton's work, Perelman wrote to him and offered to collaborate on solving the intense problem together. When he received no response from Hamilton, he decided to take on the task alone.

Perelman had already rejected a European Mathematical Society Prize in 1996, and when he offered the proof in 2002 for the Poincare Conjecture, he continued to have no interest in fame or prestige at all. Although he did not claim to have solved the Poincare Conjecture in his paper, "The Entropy Formula for the Ricci Flow and Its Geometric Applications," experts who read it quickly realized that he had made breakthroughs in relation to the conjecture and asked him to speak at several universities. Before he left to visit the universities, he published his second paper online, called " Ricci flow with surgery on three-manifolds ." This paper continued his proof and furthered the interest of experts in the field. In April, he gave lectures at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stony Brook, Columbia University, and Princeton University, while also becoming annoyed at the pressure of being offered many professorships. The third installment of his proof, "Finite extinction time for the solutions to the Ricci flow on certain three-manifolds," was published at the end of the month when he returned to St Petersburg, although it took some time for three separate groups of experts to become convinced that they had indeed been given proof of the complicated Poincare Conjecture. While working through the details of his proof, they also discovered that he had solved the Thurston Geometrization Conjecture.

A committee of mathematicians voted for Perelman to be awarded a Fields Medal in 2006 for his outstanding work on the Poincare Conjecture, stating that he deserved the prestigious award "For his contributions to geometry and his revolutionary insights into the analytical and geometric structure of the Ricci flow." He had resigned from mathematics one year prior, having become disappointed with mathematics and expressed a desire to try something else. John Lott gave a lecture describing Grigori Perelman's work that lead up to the decision to award him with the medal while in Zurich, stating that Perelman had "presented proof" rather than that he had indeed solved the Poincare Conjecture. Meanwhile, Perelman refused an invitation to be a plenary speaker at the 2006 International Congress of Mathematicians and then promptly refused the Fields Medal. Sir John Ball approached Perelman in St Petersburg and spent ten hours attempting to persuade the man to accept the medal. "Everybody understood that if the proof is correct, then no other recognition is needed ." He also said, "...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." Despite his logical and blunt rejection of the medal, it was offered to Perelman publicly, and after refusing to attend the ceremony or accept the medal he became the first to reject the prestigious award. Perelman despised the limelight, and in his attempts to avoid it, he only brought about more attention and speculation from the public - even people who had no interest in mathematics. The attention grew in 2010 when he was offered the one million dollar prize from the Clay Mathematics Institute, stating that the decision was unfair and that Hamilton's contributions were as valid as his own.

Grigori Perelman has continued living in isolation after ending his work in mathematics, continuously dodging the public eye and avoiding interviews.

Why Grigori Perelman Refused his Award

Many geniuses from the past have been rumored to have had undiagnosed Asperger's Syndrome, but what about this still-living genius who shunned the spotlight from the first moment? Grigori Perelman has shunned interview after interview, leaving many people bewildered at his genius and at his reaction to attention, and also making it difficult for a real analysis of his personality to be created. But some key statements made by Perelman and observations made by colleagues can allow for a fairly simple picture to be painted of the reasoning behind both his intelligence and his rejection of awards and financial security.

Colleagues have stated repeatedly that Perelman is not one for taking excessive care of hygiene. He does not care for haircuts, allows his fingernails to grow, rarely changes his clothing, and his primary preference for food while in the United States was black bread and milk, which he would walk out of his way to acquire. He reportedly said to a colleague, "I have all I that I need." While this is true, essentially, that he had all he needed, he certainly was not a rich man at any point and he could have afforded many haircuts and any kind of food he wished had he accepted the million-dollar award. Perelman clearly did not and still does not want any changes made to his humble lifestyle. Still, this preference for maintaining his preferred habits does not account for much in regards to possible Asperger's Syndrome nor does it really explain why he rejected the award, professorships, and the sum of money.

"...has moral principles to which he holds. And this surprises people. They often say he acts strangely because he acts honestly, in a nonconformist manner, which is unpopular in this community - even though it should be the norm" - Mikhael Gromov

It is certainly true that Perelman seems to have rejected the award and money because he deemed the decision to exclude Hamilton from the prestige to be rather unfair. Yet Perelman has not adopted a "martyr" complex, for if he had, he would have given interviews about why he felt the need to reject the money and the award and why Hamilton should have been included in the public process. Perelman has a strong aversion to publicity and the pressure to participate in societal norms that extend far beyond any "moral" ground; if it were truly all about morals, Perelman could have split the money with Hamilton or given into the pressure he received to donate the million-dollar award to charity. He could have helped his mother (who he still resides with) to be at financial peace. Perelman could even have given money to further mathematical research, but he chose not to. He wants absolutely nothing to do with it! Some peers may have put him on a righteous pedestal, but his sense of justice is only a tiny part of his solid rejection.

"I don't want to be on display like an animal in a zoo."

Grigori Perelman rejected the award, the money, and the job offers because he has a complete and total aversion to socializing, especially if it is going to result in public attention. While many people dream of a moment in the spotlight, of money, and of opportunity and fame, Grigori simply wanted to obsessively indulge in math, solve the problem, and be left alone. After spending years solving the Poincare Conjecture, he published his proof, and he felt that was all that needed to be done. He may have never shared the three-piece proof for the Poincare Conjecture had he known that, despite being very adamant about being left in peace, journalists would not cease to hound him. Did he anticipate that people would wait outside of his flat to ambush him for an interview? Probably not. He may even feel that this behavior is cruel, and at the very least, intrusive. His thinking, based on brief quotes and looking at his behavior, is very dichromatic. Perelman did what was logical, what made sense. The social storm that followed was bewildering because it did not belong. It was not a part, in Perelman's mind, of the mathematical story he had contributed to.

"Virtually everything people have recounted to me about Perelman's behavior... fits the typical picture of a person with Asperger's syndrome. His apparent disregard for conventions of personal hygiene is common to Aspergerians, who perceive it as a nuisance forced upon them by the incomprehensible world of social mores. The trouble he had with articulating his solutions to problems is also classic. `People with Asperger's often put in far too much detail,"- Baron Cohen on Perelman.

It has been noted that Perelman was patient and would explain mathematics over and over again, but did not alter the explanation, as if he could not comprehend that the listener did not understand the mathematics or needed it to be simplified. Diminished theory of mind is one of the few elements of the condition that remains consistent cross the board. What theory of mind does is allow an individual to see something from another persons point of view. In patients with Aspergers Syndrome, the diminished theory of mind is apparent in the tendency to explain a particular part of an interest in a way that would be foreign to someone who is new to the topic. It is the trait that is the basis for empathy and for understanding why a person would see things from any given perspective. An individual with a diminished theory of mind has "mind blindness."

"Emptiness is everywhere and it can be calculated, which gives us a great opportunity. I know how to control the universe. So tell me, why should I run for a million?"

Is mind-blindness part of the reason he never bothered to enter the spotlight, and makes an active effort to avoid it? He knew he would be asked the same question over and over, and he was right. Yet his brief and elusive responses to old colleagues and the media suggest that he still had little grasp on what is driving the common man to be so unrelenting in the quest to speak to a man who wants to be left alone. A brief web-search on Perelman reveals speculation on his quote regarding the rejection of the money. Is he really claiming to know how to control the universe? Without a deep understanding of the Poincare Conjecture and its relation to the very shape of the universe, a layman can easily mistake Perelman's claim for psychobabble. After all of the unwanted attention and pressure he has received, Perelman has still failed to mute the public interest in him. And this display of mind-blindness is what resulted in his massive disappointment in mathematics.

How could others who love math so profoundly be so quick to sell it? It must have been at least somewhat heartbreaking for Grigori Perelman, who spent the better half of a decade working intensely on the Poincare Conjecture, to realize that he was alone in his pure love of the subject. His peers had been tainted with strange, whimsical desires for attention and money that, in Perelman's mind, belonged far, far away from mathematics. He had even been accused of plagiary; what did he have to gain from plagiary other than wretched attention? This particular brand of pure, obsessive zeal is common in (if not specific to) Asperger's Syndrome, and to sully the passion is an ultimate sin and can be highly devastating. Between Perelman's restricted behavioral patterns, non-consideration for hygiene, intense genius and focus for a subject, strong asocial preferences, and inability to conform to the starry and bedazzled, award-oriented expectations of his peers (and the world), it makes a speculation on undiagnosed Asperger's Syndrome nearly impossible to avoid.

"As long as I was not conspicuous, I had a choice. Either to make some ugly thing or, if I didn't do this kind of thing, to be treated as a pet. Now, when I become a very conspicuous person, I cannot stay a pet and say nothing. That is why I had to quit."

The award the world has given Perelman for solving the Poincare Conjecture is to give him non-optional attention, and he has given the world only enough personal information for a brief speculation on his choices regarding the rejection of what he was offered. If he returns to mathematics, he could make many more profound discoveries, but for now, he does not seem intent on doing so. Whatever he is doing, he is certainly keeping to himself. Does Grigori Perelman know how to control the universe? If he does, he will certainly be hesitant to alert anyone of the details.


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