Grigoriy Perelman – a serious lesson for all of us

Like about four years ago, the name of Grigoriy Yakovlevich (Grisha) Perelman is again in the mass-media headlines all around the world.

Grisha is a prominent mathematician, who was able to solve one of the most perplexed mathematical problems of the last two centuries: he had managed to prove the Poincaré conjecture.

In 2006 he was awarded the prestigious Fields Medal, but had voluntarily and expressly refused to accept it.

Most recently, he has been awarded the not less prestigious Clay Millenium Prize, but is expected to reject this award as well.

Grisha has practically torn himself apart with any tie to the professional community in particular and the outside world in general. But today’s BBC release tells us the following:

“The mathematician is reported to have said “I have all I want” when contacted by a reporter this week about the Clay Millennium Prize.

According to the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper, he was speaking through the closed door of his flat …

… “I’m not interested in money or fame,” he is quoted to have said at the time.

“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.”

Is it something wrong with Grisha – or with the common practice to award prizes for scientific research ?

Two stories come to my mind in this connection:

1. Jean-Paul Sartre, who willingly refused to accept the Nobel Prize Award in Literature in 1964. This is how the Nobel Foundation site explains the then situation:


In a public announcement, printed in Le Figaro of October 23, 1964, Mr. Sartre expressed his regret that his refusal of the prize had given rise to scandal, and wished it to be known that, unaware of the irrevocability of the Swedish Academy’s decisions, he had sought by letter to prevent their choice falling upon him. In this letter, he specified that his refusal was not meant to slight the Swedish Academy but was rather based on personal and objective reasons of his own.

As to personal reasons, Mr. Sartre pointed out that due to his conception of the writer’s task he had always declined official honours and thus his present act was not unprecedented. He had similarly refused membership in the Legion of Honour and had not desired to enter the Collège de France, and he would refuse the Lenin Prize if it were offered to him. He stated that a writer’s accepting such an honour would be to associate his personal commitments with the awarding institution, and that, above all, a writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution.

Among his objective reasons, Mr. Sartre listed his belief that interchange between East and West must take place between men and between cultures without the intervention of institutions. Furthermore, since the conferment of past prizes did not, in his opinion, represent equally writers of all ideologies and nations, he felt that his acceptance might be undesirably and unjustly interpreted.

Mr. Sartre closed his remarks with a message of affection for the Swedish public.”

2. Le Duc Tho, who refused to accept the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1973. Here is what the Nobel Foundation site reveals about this:

“Le Duc Tho has informed the Committee that at present he is not in a position to be able to accept the Prize, giving as his reason the present situation in Vietnam. In accordance with current regulations the Committee has been able to withhold the Prize until October 1, 1974. It hopes that conditions in Vietnam will develop in accordance with the aims of the ceasefire concluded on January 23, and this will make it possible for him to accept the Prize.”

In all the three cases we see the True Professionals who share the highest ethical position in the whole world and through the whole history. They are accordingly the True Etalons for the high-precision measurement of the moral value of any professional upon Earth.

This is a very serious lesson for all of us, especially for those young people who are just at the beginning of their own careers.

But will this lesson ever be adequately perceived ? Already in the ancient time, some great ideas in this direction were proclaimed and demonstrated in practice as well – by Zhuangzi’s butterfly dream and Diogenes’ looking for the human being in the full daylight with the lamp – and did it help ???

… This lesson is underlined by the most recent fact that one of the Russian charity foundations “Warm Home” has called on Dr Perelman in an open letter on its website to give the cash equivalent of the US Clay Mathematics Institute’s $1m Millennium Prize to Russian charities.

In this connection, a fragment from a novel “The heart of a dog” by the famous Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov comes to my mind:

” … ‘I want to ask you’ – here the woman pulled a number of coloured
magazines wet with snow, from out of the front of her tunic – ‘to buy a few
of these magazines in aid of the children of Germany. 50 kopecks a copy.’

‘No, I will not,’ said Philip Philipovich curtly after a glance at the

Total amazement showed on the faces, and the girl turned cranberry-colour.
‘Why not?’
‘I don’t want to.’
‘Don’t you feel sorry for the children of Germany?’
‘Yes, I do.’
‘Can’t you spare 50 kopecks?’
‘Yes, I can.’
‘Well, why won’t you, then?’
‘I don’t want to.’
‘You know, professor,’ said the girl with a deep sigh, ‘if you weren’t
world-famous and if you weren’t being protected by certain people in the
most disgusting way,’ (the fair youth tugged at the hem of her jerkin, but
she brushed him away), ‘which we propose to investigate, you should be

‘What for?’ asked Philip Philipovich with curiosity.
‘Because you hate the proletariat!’ said the woman proudly.
‘You’re right, I don’t like the proletariat,’ agreed Philip Philipovich
sadly, and pressed a button. …”

Added on 18.04.2010-10.05.2010: The continuation of the above story is here:
and here: http://www.scienceblog.com/cms/blog/9293-very-same-grisha-perelman-about-masha-gessens-book-perfect-rigor.html.
and here: http://www.scienceblog.com/cms/blog/9293-grigori-perelman-facebook-and-talk-show-russian-tv-yet-another-slumdog-millionaire.html
Yes, stay tuned – there will definitely be more interesting news about Grisha – for example, he has refused to participate in the so-called “Russian Silicon Valley” project: http://bnott.com/33917.html …

Added on 14.05.2010: In his review on Masha’s book published in the “Nature”, George Szpiro is speaking in high terms of the quality of her journalist analysis, but adds the following remark:

“One person who knows the Russian mathematician’s true motives is John Ball, the then-president of the International Mathematical Union who travelled to St Petersburg in an attempt to persuade Perelman to accept the award. Ball reveals only that Perelman was allegedly disappointed by the dishonourable behaviour of some unnamed mathematicians. Gessen, by proffering gratuitous speculations, both misleads the reader and does Perelman grave injustice.

Until 2006, the Poincaré conjecture was one of the most famous open problems in maths; now it is one more theorem. For Perelman, proving the conjecture was sufficient reward in itself — no prize or recognition was needed. Perfect Rigor reminds us that it is journalists and the public who want more.”

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