Grigori Perelman on Facebook and in a Talk-Show on Russian TV: Yet another “slumdog millionaire” ?

There is a nice Internet site on Facebook about Grisha Perelman:


which claims to have 799 fans. Wonderful !

There is a guy who started there a discussion on Grisha:


Is Grisha yet another “slumdog millionaire” ?

I do not think so.

Moreover, on 30.04.2010 at 20:00 (Moscow time), the first channel of the Russian TV has aired an issue of a highly popular and esteemed talk-show “Pust’ govoryat” (“Let them speak out”) which was devoted to a discussion about Grisha Perelman (who can understand Russian might wish to read the annotation and the viewers’ responses, as well as directly watch the pertinent flash-video).

The main topic of the whole show was to try to get nearer to answering the poser, why Grisha has turned down all the prizes ever awarded to him. The first attempt was undertaken by inviting Grisha’s former school teacher, a nice old lady, who is allegedly the only person from the outside world whom marooned Grisha is still keeping phone contact with. The TV moderator has asked her about her opinion on Grisha’s early childhood. The teacher has characterized her former pupil as a very calm, equilibrated but still nonetheless friendly, although somewhat lonely, boy, who as a rule wasn’t taking part in the usual spare time activities of other children, because he was mostly absorbed by his studies. He was always a very good pupil, for his answers to  teachers’ questions were every time very short, but thoughtful and correct. Still, he was distinguished for his inattention to his appearance: the buttons on his shirt were frequently put into incorrect slits, the bootlaces on his shoes were untied now and again. Several times she visited Grisha’s home to speak to his parents and there she noticed a very frugal furniture (I must comment here that during the USSR time the living standards of the most Soviet citizens were extremely frugal as compared to those in the Western countries).

Then, the TV-moderator asked her about how she feels in view of the fact that one of her former pupils could become prominent. She answered that she and all of her colleagues at the former Grisha’s school are very proud of him. “But have you ever asked Grisha WHY he has turned down his prizes ?”, asked the TV moderator. The teacher told that Grisha should definitely have his solid grounds to do so, whereas she was in fact never interested in this question. “But if you are in phone contact to Grisha, why wouldn’t you call him up right now from this studio, whereas all others sitting here would keep silence for a while ?” – suggested the TV-moderator – and added with a slight whiff of mockery: “We have at last to learn whether Grisha Perelman is a true living person – and not a kind of ghost devised by journalists”. Restrained laughter in the studio hall …

The phone call did take place. Grisha has picked up the phone. Here is approximately the dialog which followed:

Teacher: “Hello, can you hear me, do you recognize me ?”
Grisha: “Sure, of course, nice to hear from you.”
Teacher: “Grisha, I am sorry but I am really overwhelmed by all these journalists who would like to know why you have refused to accept your prizes. May be you can tell me ?”
Grisha: “But I have already told all of them that I would not like to give any kind of interview.”
Teacher: “But you know, I am not journalist !”
Grisha: “I will not tell you as well.”
Teacher: “It is OK, sure I will conform to the common rule. But, please, you’d definitely benefit a lot, if you’d try not to be so adversarial to the people surrounding you … Well, OK, tell me please, what are you doing right now ?”
Grisha: “Couldn’t you please call me any other time ? I have a feeling that our present conversation is being recorded somehow …”.
Teacher: “No problem, I will definitely call you again soon and possibly even come to see you. Is it OK ?”
Grisha: “That’s fine, thank you. Bye.”
Teacher: “Yes, never mind, Grisha ! Bye !”

The frontal discussion started in connection with this. The TV-moderator has pointed out Grisha’s “ingenious intuition”, which hasn’t been approved by the teacher. She told: “He knew in advance that I am on my trip in Moscow due to the talk show, so there is nothing mysterious at all”.

The main highlights of this discussion were:

1. The professional conclusion of the physician that Grisha was acting all the time now as an absolutely adequate person without any shadow of psychic disorder.

2. One of the journalists had tried to interrupt the physician, shouting out something like as follows: “Shut up, your Perelman is typical psycho ! Who else upon Earth, tell me, will refuse to accept such a sum of money ? And if he is so noble-minded, then he must immediately take this money and share it with all those who is in need in our country !”

3. The above negative outbreak was in fact the only one during the 45 minutes of the talk show. All other speakers – and not only scientific research workers present in the studio – have this or that way shown Grisha their deepest respect, as well as their greatest appreciation of his decision.

4. A very emotional report of a young journalist who was sent to try to interview Grisha. She told that her task was absolutely unrewarding, and also Grisha was laughing with her at phone and from behind his door all the time. She conjectured that Grisha acted as a kind of young mischievous schoolboy, but in no way as a ripe man in his forties. “Well, possibly that dating with Grisha could be your true chance – you are not married yet, as far as I know !”, the TV moderator concluded her report.

5. Grisha’s neighbors were interviewed and their opinion on the whole story was very positive. These were as a rule aged and plain people, who indeed showed their sincere compassion towards Grisha and his whole story (SIC ! Nothing similar to the alleged “cockroach-infested apartment” reported earlier !).

Anyway, the definite blockbuster of this talk show was the video-conference with Sir John M. Ball, professor of natural philosophy at the Oxford University, Great Britain, the President of the International Mathematical Union in 2003-2006, who, as well known, could meet Grisha personally in S.-Petersburg in 2006 on behalf of the Union, trying in vain for several days to persuade Grisha not to turn down the Fields medal. The TV moderator asked Sir Ball to kindly explain Grisha’s lack of motivation in accepting the awarded prizes. Sir Ball has refused to give a detailed account on their personal meeting in 2006, but  mentioned along with this that Grisha had complained of his feeling that he ought to be alienated in the professional community. Sir Ball has expressed a vague hope that Grisha would still accept his prizes, because he definitely deserves them.

Although that was, in effect, the general answer to the main question of the talk show, there was still some more discussion. The TV moderator mentioned also Grisha’s sister, who is presently working in Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, Sweden – and whom the Russian TV has also tried to fetch, asking the same question about her brother. But she has also refused to talk to journalists about this issue.

What was a sheer surprise for me is that Masha Gessen, the author of Grisha’s only biography, was not present at this talk show. To my mind, this would add some analytical flavor to the whole TV story. In fact, only one lady of all those present in the studio tried to compare Grisha with Diogenes, but her guess has not found any response in the audience.

The conclusion of the show was actually very sad. The TV-moderator has recalled the old and famous Soviet chess Grossmeister, Vasily Smyslov, who has passed away about one month ago, being practically forgotten by everybody. There was a touching interview with old and very ill Mrs Smyslov – she wasn’t yet even told about the death of her husband … “The moral of the story – do not let yourself be marooned”, was the approximate meaning of the concluding  phrase by the talk show’s moderator.

Reverting to Masha Gessen, she has never responded to those several E-mails I have sent her in trying to discuss her terrific book with her. Moreover, I have noticed that she is a member of a very strange (at least, in my opinion) Russian-speaking Internet community called “The Snob Project”, acting as an author and deputy chief editor of “Snob” magazine, which clams to be a Russian version of “Vanity Fair”. Is Masha really a snob ? By the way, on her Russian-speaking Snob webpage, I found Masha celebrating a review of her book published in the “New York Review of Books”. She states that the very fact of such a review turns her book into a true Event, whereas without such a review her book could be considered drowned …

… Well, let’s cast a look at this review. Its author in fact produces a poor and lengthy paraphrase of several stories from Masha’s book and then places the following conclusion:

“Some might argue that monetary awards for mathematical work are inappropriate, or that the Poincaré Conjecture is of little practical value and not worth the one-million-dollar prize. The aesthetic and epistemic value of the proof is priceless, however, and it may eventually yield more earthly consequences as well. As for the size of the award—how many no-name hacks are there on Wall Street who make a million dollars or more not just once but every year, and contribute exactly what? Whether Perelman has practical need for the money or not, he could use it to help support his mother or mathematicians of his liking, or to advance the kind of education conceived by Andrei Kolmogorov, or for some purpose only he could imagine. Reconsider your decision, Grisha.”

Don’t you feel a kind of deja-vu ? Exactly ! This is just the “fluffy journalist” from the above-mentioned Russian talk-show – but translated into English and expressed in not that rowdy-like way …

Is this really whom you are cheering and cooperating with, dear Masha ???

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.”

Grisha Perelman

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