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The mathematician who refused the $1 million prize

Grigory Perelman is the man who refused a million dollar prize awarded by the Clay Mathematics Institute in Cambridge for proving the Poincaré conjecture, a century-old conundrum about the characteristics of three-dimensional spheres, regarded by mathematicians as a holy grail for its important implications for mathematics and cosmology.

This unknown mathematician has suddenly become incredibly popular. Vladimir Putin recommended the academics who ask him for money to follow Perelman’s example: ”We try to help him, but he won’t take our money”, said the Russian Prime Minister.

Perelman’s considered the decision unfair because he felt that the American mathematician Richard Hamilton’s contribution to the solution of the problem is no less than his. Hamilton is an American mathematician who has been trying to prove the Poincaré conjecture since he was 25 years old and developed the so-called “Theory of the Ricci Flow”, which really formed the basis for Perelman’s proof.

In 2002, Perelman posted a proof of the Poincaré on the internet. Any mathematical proof has a set of conventions – it begins with axioms and employs a series of logical statements to arrive at a conclusion. By these standards, Perelman’s proof was unorthodox, because It was astonishingly brief for such an ambitious work; so logic sequences that could have been elaborated over many pages were often severely compressed, including, nevertheless, other irrelevant results to the central arguments. But four years later two teams of experts had vetted the proof and had found no significant errors in the demonstration. Perelman had solved the Poincaré, recognised the mathematics community.

The mathematician Poincaré was a cousin of Raymond Poincaré, the President of France during the First World War. As one of the most creative mathematicians of the nineteenth century, he conceived his famous problem in 1904. The conjecture was potentially important for scientists studying the largest known three-dimensional manifold: the universe. By 1982, Poincaré’s conjecture had been proved in all dimensions except the third. In 2000, the Clay Mathematics Institute, a private foundation that promotes mathematical research, named the Poincaré one of the seven most important outstanding problems in mathematics and offered a million dollars to anyone who could prove it.

The man who has solved it is Russian with curly beard, bushy eyebrows and turquoise eyes who lives modestly with his mother in an apartment on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. To some, Perelman is living proof that money is not ultimate happiness, at least not for mathematicians.

Featured image credit: vitma via Shutterstock

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Fran Martinez

Francisco has been living (and dying) in Lisbon, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Istanbul, Madrid and now in Berlin. He has been awarded with several scholarships at different universities and has got a master’s degree in “International Economy, Cooperation and Development”. During the last five years he has also worked as a journalist.

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One thought on “The mathematician who refused the $1 million prize”

  1. Tthis story is many years old! A fiend told me that there has been even a rap song about him circulating in Russia. At an interview with a British journalist through the closed home door he said that he is not involved any more in mathematics.