What would you sacrifice to solve a problem that has stumped mathematicians for more than a century? What if, at the conclusion of your creative breakthrough, you would be deluged with generous offers from top American universities? What if you could expect a million-dollar prize for solving that problem?
Russian mathematician and genius Grigory Perelman solved the Poincare Conjecture, a complex topological problem involving how to characterize three-dimensional spheres. With an unbending focus on mathematics since childhood and a mind possessed with nearly superhuman computing power, Perelman did what no man or woman could do before. But to do it required sacrificing nearly every vestige of a normal life. Now 43, this internationally acclaimed mathematician lives with his mother.
Masha Gessen, author of the recently published and powerfully told Perfect Rigor: A Genius + The Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century, believes that Perelman has Asperger's Syndrome, an autistic condition that has enabled his singular focus and rigorous commitment to rules. But it also has made him unable to cope with the messy reality of everyday life and the social pressures that swirled around him and his extraordinary achievement.
In fact, Gessen describes how offended and hurt Perelman was by the outpouring of offers from schools such as Princeton, Columbia and MIT that followed his celebrated triumph. Rather than enjoying the flattery, he saw this behavior as signs of the crass commercialization of math, a lack of ethics, vulgar attempts to buy him off for all his hard work.
So what did he do? He dropped out. He is said to have stated that he was quitting mathematics forever.
Whatever level of eccentricity or madness (Gessen's word) Perelman suffers, I have to say that I admire his fearless stand enormously. He's forsaken most everything for what he believes is right.
Yes, it may be a loss for mathematics and for the universities and students who could learn from him, but he's offered an enduring principle: What matters most is not the fame or the fortune. It's the work itself.