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Math guy refuses top prize


Fields medalist from Russia spurns group approval, and millions.

Is this an example for HIV∫AIDS enthusiasts?

Here is news from the one area in modern life which is almost exempt from accusations of bias – mathematics. Grigory Perelman, 40, a Russian who solved a part of the Poincare Conjecture, was awarded the Fields Medal and turned it down, according to Kenneth Chang in the Times today (Tues Aug 22).

Dr. Perelman refused to accept the medal, as he has other honors, and he did not attend the ceremonies at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Madrid.

“I regret that Dr. Perelman has declined to accept the medal,” Sir John M. Ball, president of the International Mathematical Union, said during the ceremonies.

Many people in HIV∫AIDS are unlikely to understand this. Why would any sane person refuse the delights of group approval? they will ask. Isn’t this what makes life worth living? Don’t we all need and seek love from our peers? Is there anything better than the audience clapping as one accepts the prize which validates ones professional life, which is the source of most of one’s identity these days, even if one is playing three card monte with the trust of millions?

Did Robert Gallo turn down the Lasker prize just because people pointed out that HTLV-1 seemed unlikely after all to cause leukemia? Did David Baltimore rush to open up his lab at MIT over the weekend when he heard Howard Temin had discovered reverse transcriptase? You bet. A Nobel can transform your life. Ever after receiving it one’s opinions about things that one knows very little about are sought after, including who else should get the prize.

Clearly the Russian is mad:

He has declined previous mathematical prizes and has turned down job offers from Princeton, Stanford and other universities. He has said he wants no part of $1 million that the Clay Mathematics Institute in Cambridge, Mass. has offered for the first published proof of the conjecture.

Maybe he should have been dragged to the Toronto World AIDS Conference in Montreal to teach him what he is missing.

Meanwhile, we can see how twisted this lack of interest in fame is from the following article, also today’s, which puzzles over whether fame is worth it, but notes that a lot of people are seriously disappointed when they realize they never will be famous: The Fame Motive by Benedict Carey

In a 1996 study, Richard M. Ryan of the University of Rochester and Dr. Kasser, then at Rochester, conducted in-depth surveys of 100 adults, asking about their aspirations, guiding principles, and values, as well as administering standard measures of psychological well-being.

The participants in the study who focused on goals tied to others’ approval, like fame, reported significantly higher levels of distress than those interested primarily in self-acceptance and friendship.

Surveys done since then, in communities around the world, suggest the same thing: aiming for a target as elusive as fame, and so dependent on the judgments of others, is psychologically treacherous.

Freud might have agreed: he is said to have fainted only twice in his life, both times when he perceived a threat to his legacy.

But of course fame’s not a primary motive for most of the HIV faithful. They simply want to belong. Whether it’s believing that a retrovirus means everyone in the world must take prophylactic drugs (it’s coming, folks!), or that bacon is spiritually bad for you, or Jesus was the son of God, they will go along with whatever it takes.

Update (Sun Aug 27)” Georhe Johnson in the Times Week in Review tells us a little more about the mathematician why isn’t interested in celebrity:

The Math Was Complex, the Intentions, Strikingly Simple by George Johnson

Unlike Brando turning down an Academy Award or Sartre a Nobel Prize, Dr. Perelman didn’t appear to be making a political statement or trying to draw more attention to himself. It was not so much a medal that he was rejecting but the idea that in the search for nature’s secrets the discoverer is more important than the discovery.

“I do not think anything that I say can be of the slightest public interest,” he told a London newspaper, The Telegraph, instantly making himself more interesting. “I know that self-promotion happens a lot and if people want to do that, good luck to them, but I do not regard it as a positive thing.”…..

It has taken nearly four years for Dr. Perelman’s colleagues to unpack the implications of his 68-page exposition, which is so oblique that it doesn’t actually mention the conjecture. The Clay Institute Web site carries links to three papers by others — 992 pages in total — either explicating the proof or trying to absorb it as a detail of their own.

Those intent on parceling out credit may have as hard a time with the intellectual forensics: Who got what from whom? Dr. Perelman’s papers are almost as studded with names as with numbers. “The Hamilton-Tian conjecture,” “Kähler manifolds,” “the Bishop-Gromov relative volume comparison theorem,” “the Gaussian logarithmic Sobolev inequality, due to L. Gross” — all have left their fingerprints on The Book. Spread among everyone who contributed, the Clay Prize might not go very far.

A purist would say that no one person deserves to stake a claim on a theorem. That seemed to be what Dr. Perelman, who has said he disapproves of politics in mathematics, was implying.

“If anybody is interested in my way of solving the problem, it’s all there — let them go and read about it,” he told The Telegraph. “I have published all my calculations. This is what I can offer the public.”

The work for its own sake! These darn mathematicians, who can explain their craziness?

Math Was Complex, the Intentions, Strikingly Simple

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The New York Times

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August 27, 2006

Ideas & Trends

The Math Was Complex, the Intentions, Strikingly Simple

By GEORGE JOHNSON

LONG before John Forbes Nash, the schizophrenic Nobel laureate fictionalized onscreen in “A Beautiful Mind,” mathematics has been infused with the legend of the mad genius cut off from the physical world and dwelling in a separate realm of numbers. In ancient times, there was Pythagoras, guru of a cult of geometers, and Archimedes, so distracted by an equation he was scratching in the sand that he was slain by a Roman soldier. Pascal and Newton in the 17th century, Gödel in the 20th — each reinforced the image of the mathematician as ascetic, forgoing a regular life to pursue truths too rarefied for the rest of us to understand.

Last week, a reclusive Russian topologist named Grigory Perelman seemed to be playing to type, or stereotype, when he refused to accept the highest honor in mathematics, the Fields Medal, for work pointing toward the solution of Poincaré’s conjecture, a longstanding hypothesis involving the deep structure of three-dimensional objects. He left open the possibility that he would also spurn a $1 million prize from the Clay Mathematics Institute in Cambridge, Mass.

Unlike Brando turning down an Academy Award or Sartre a Nobel Prize, Dr. Perelman didn’t appear to be making a political statement or trying to draw more attention to himself. It was not so much a medal that he was rejecting but the idea that in the search for nature’s secrets the discoverer is more important than the discovery.

“I do not think anything that I say can be of the slightest public interest,” he told a London newspaper, The Telegraph, instantly making himself more interesting. “I know that self-promotion happens a lot and if people want to do that, good luck to them, but I do not regard it as a positive thing.”

Mathematics is supposed to be a Wikipedia-like undertaking, with thousands of self-effacing scriveners quietly laboring over a great self-correcting text. But in any endeavor — literature, art, science, theology — a celebrity system develops and egos get in the way. Newton and Leibniz, not quite content with the thrill of discovering calculus, fought over who found it first.

As the pickings grow sparser and modern proofs sprawl in size and complexity, it becomes that much harder, and more artificial, to separate out a single discoverer. But that is what society with its accolades and heroes demands. The geometry of the universe almost guarantees that a movie treatment heralding Dr. Perelman is already in the works: “Good Will Hunting” set in St. Petersburg, where he lives, unemployed, with his mother, or a Russian rendition of “Proof.”

To hear him tell it, he is above such trivialities. What matters are the ideas, not the brains in which they alight. Posted without fear of thievery on the Internet beginning in 2002, his proof, consisting of three dense papers, gives glimpses of a world of pure thought that few will ever know.

Who needs prizes when you are free to wander across a plane so lofty that a soda straw and a teacup blur into the same topological abstraction, and there is nothing that a million dollars can buy? Until his death in 1996, the Hungarian number theorist Paul Erdos was content to live out of a suitcase, traveling from the home of one colleague to another, seeking theorems so sparse and true that they came, he said, “straight from The Book,” a platonic text where he envisioned all mathematics was prewritten.

Down here in the sublunar realm, things are messier. Truths that can be grasped in a caffeinated flash become rarer all the time. If Poincaré’s conjecture belonged to that category it would have been proved long ago, probably by Henri Poincaré.

It has taken nearly four years for Dr. Perelman’s colleagues to unpack the implications of his 68-page exposition, which is so oblique that it doesn’t actually mention the conjecture. The Clay Institute Web site carries links to three papers by others — 992 pages in total — either explicating the proof or trying to absorb it as a detail of their own.

Those intent on parceling out credit may have as hard a time with the intellectual forensics: Who got what from whom? Dr. Perelman’s papers are almost as studded with names as with numbers. “The Hamilton-Tian conjecture,” “Kähler manifolds,” “the Bishop-Gromov relative volume comparison theorem,” “the Gaussian logarithmic Sobolev inequality, due to L. Gross” — all have left their fingerprints on The Book. Spread among everyone who contributed, the Clay Prize might not go very far.

A purist would say that no one person deserves to stake a claim on a theorem. That seemed to be what Dr. Perelman, who has said he disapproves of politics in mathematics, was implying.

“If anybody is interested in my way of solving the problem, it’s all there — let them go and read about it,” he told The Telegraph. “I have published all my calculations. This is what I can offer the public.”

He sounded a little like J. D. Salinger, hiding away in his New Hampshire hermitage, fending off a pesky reporter: “Read the book again. It’s all there.”

Highest Honor in Mathematics Is Refused, by Kenneth Chang and

The Fame Motive, by Benedict Carey.

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The New York Times

August 22, 2006

Highest Honor in Mathematics Is Refused

By KENNETH CHANG

Grigory Perelman, a reclusive Russian mathematician who solved a key piece in a century-old puzzle known as the Poincaré conjecture, was one of four mathematicians awarded the Fields Medal today.

But Dr. Perelman refused to accept the medal, as he has other honors, and he did not attend the ceremonies at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Madrid.

“I regret that Dr. Perelman has declined to accept the medal,” Sir John M. Ball, president of the International Mathematical Union, said during the ceremonies.

The Fields Medal, often described as mathematics’ equivalent to the Nobel Prize, is given every four years, and several can be awarded at once. Besides Dr. Perelman, three professors of mathematics were awarded Fields Medals this year: Andrei Okounkov of Princeton; Terence Tao of University of California, Los Angeles; and Wendelin Werner of the University of Paris-Sud in Orsay.

Dr. Perelman, 40, is known not only for his work on the Poincaré conjecture, among the most heralded unsolved math problems, but also because he has declined previous mathematical prizes and has turned down job offers from Princeton, Stanford and other universities. He has said he wants no part of $1 million that the Clay Mathematics Institute in Cambridge, Mass. has offered for the first published proof of the conjecture.

In June, Dr. Ball traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia, where Dr. Perelman lives, for two days in hopes of persuading him to go to Madrid and accept the medal.

“He was very polite and cordial, and open and direct,” Dr. Ball said in an interview.

But he was also adamant. “The reasons center around his feeling of isolation from the mathematical community,” Dr. Ball said of Dr. Perelman’s refusal, “and in consequence his not wanting to be a figurehead for it or wanting to represent it.”

Dr. Ball added, “I don’t think he meant it as an insult. He’s a very polite person. There was never a cross word.”

Despite Dr. Perelman’s refusal, he is still officially a Fields Medalist. “He has a say whether he accepts it, but we have awarded it,” Dr. Ball said.

Beginning in 2002, Dr. Perelman, then at the Steklov Institute of Mathematics of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, published a series of papers on the Internet and gave lectures at several American universities describing how he had overcome a roadblock in the proof of the Poincaré conjecture.

The conjecture, devised by Henri Poincaré in 1904, essentially says that the only shape that has no holes and fits within a finite space is a sphere. That is certainly true looking at two-dimensional surfaces in the everyday three-dimensional world, but the conjecture says the same is true for three-dimensional surfaces embedded in four dimensions.

Dr. Perelman solved a difficult problem that other mathematicians had encountered when trying to prove the conjecture, using a technique called Ricci flow that smoothes out bumps in a surface and transforms it into a simpler form.

Dr. Okounkov, born in 1969 in Moscow, was recognized for work that tied together different fields of mathematics that had seemed unrelated. “This is the striking feature of Okounkov’s work, finding unexpected links,” said Enrico Arbarello, a professor of geometry at the University of Rome in Italy.

Dr. Okounkov’s work has found use in describing the changing surfaces of melting crystals. The boundary between melted and non-melted is created randomly, but the random process inevitably produces a border in the shape of a heart.

Dr. Tao, a native of Australia and one of the youngest Fields Medal winners ever at age 31, has worked in several different fields, producing significant advances in the understanding of prime numbers, techniques that might lead to simplifying the equations of Einstein’s theory of general relativity and the equations of quantum mechanics that describe how light bounces around in a fiber optic cable.

Dr. Werner, born in Germany in 1968, has also worked at the intersection of mathematics and physics, describing phenomena like percolation and shapes produced by the random paths of Brownian motion.

The medal was conceived by John Charles Fields, a Canadian mathematician, “in recognition of work already done and as an encouragement for further achievements on the part of the recipient.”

Since 1936, when the medal was first awarded, judges have interpreted the terms of Dr. Fields’s trust fund to mean that the award should usually be limited to mathematicians 40 years old or younger.

The New York Times

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August 22, 2006

The Fame Motive

By BENEDICT CAREY

Money and power are handy, but millions of ambitious people are after something other than the corner office or the beach house on St. Bart’s. They want to swivel necks, to light a flare in others’ eyes, to walk into a crowded room and feel the conversation stop. They are busy networking, auditioning, talking up their latest project — a screenplay, a memoir, a new reality show — to satisfy a desire so obvious it is all but invisible.

“To be noticed, to be wanted, to be loved, to walk into a place and have others care about what you’re doing, even what you had for lunch that day: that’s what people want, in my opinion,” said Kaysar Ridha, 26, of Irvine, Calif., a recent favorite of fans of the popular CBS reality series “Big Brother.” “It’s strange and twisted, because when that attention does come, the irony is you want more privacy.”

For most of its existence, the field of psychology has ignored fame as a primary motivator of human behavior: it was considered too shallow, too culturally variable, too often mingled with other motives to be taken seriously. But in recent years, a small number of social scientists have begun to study and think about fame in a different way, ranking it with other goals, measuring its psychological effects, characterizing its devoted seekers.

People with an overriding desire to be widely known to strangers are different from those who primarily covet wealth and influence. Their fame-seeking behavior appears rooted in a desire for social acceptance, a longing for the existential reassurance promised by wide renown.

These yearnings can become more acute in life’s later years, as the opportunities for fame dwindle, “but the motive never dies, and when we realize we’re not going to make it in this lifetime, we find some other route: posthumous fame,” said Orville Gilbert Brim, a psychologist who is completing a book called “The Fame Motive.” The book is based on data he has gathered and analyzed, with the support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

“It’s like belief in the afterlife in medieval communities, where people couldn’t wait to die and go on to better life,” Dr. Brim said. “That’s how strong it is.”

The urge to achieve social distinction is evident worldwide, even among people for whom prominence is neither accessible nor desirable. In rural Hindu villages in India, for instance, widows are expected to be perpetual mourners, austere in their habits, appetites and dress; even so, they often jockey for position, said Richard A. Shweder, an anthropologist in the department of comparative human development at the University of Chicago.

“Many compete for who is most pure,” Dr. Shweder said. “They say, ‘I don’t eat fish, I don’t eat eggs, I don’t even walk into someone’s house who has eaten meat.’ It’s a natural kind of social comparison.”

In media-rich urban centers, the drive to stand out tends to be more oriented toward celebrity, and its hold on people appears similar across diverse cultures.

Surveys in Chinese and German cities have found that about 30 percent of adults report regularly daydreaming about being famous, and more than 40 percent expect to enjoy some passing dose of fame — their “15 minutes,” in Andy Warhol’s famous phrase — at some point in life, according to data analyzed by Dr. Brim. The rates are roughly equivalent to those found in American adults. For teenagers, the rates are higher.

Yet for all the dreamers, only one or two in 100 rate fame as their most coveted goal, trumping all others, the data collected by Dr. Brim and others show.

“It’s a distinct type, people who expect to get meaning out of fame, who believe the only way to have their lives make sense is to be famous,” said Tim Kasser, a psychologist at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill. “We all need to make meaning out of our lives, and this is one way people attempt to do it.”

Therapists and researchers, including Dr. Brim, have traced longing for renown to lingering feelings of rejection or neglect. After all, celebrity is the ultimate high school in-group, writ large. It appears a perfect balm for the sting of social exclusion, or neglect by emotionally or physically absent parents.

In her memoir, “In the Shadow of Fame,” Sue Erikson Bloland, daughter of the renowned psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, writes, “He had the kind of charisma that made people hungry to know him — to become privy to what he was thinking and feeling and writing about.”

Dr. Erikson’s dogged pursuit of recognition, she writes, was partly due to a sense of abandonment: he never knew his biological father, who disappeared before he was born. Decades later, Dr. Erikson still sought comfort and guidance from others, “but his pursuit of reassurance was not simply the charming humility it was generally interpreted to be,” she writes. “It expressed a persistent and tormenting self-doubt.”

Another factor may also be at work in many people who are preoccupied with becoming famous, one linked to a subconscious but acute appreciation of mortality. In recent experiments, psychologists have shown that, when reminded that they will one day die, people fixate on attributes they consider central to their self-worth.

Those who value strength squeeze a hand grip with more force; those who prize driving ability, cooking skills or physical appearance intensify their focus.

“Given this awareness of our mortality,” said Jeffrey Greenberg, a psychologist at the University of Arizona, “to function securely, we need to feel somehow protected from this existential predicament, to feel like we are more than just material animals fated only to obliteration upon death.

“We accomplish that by trying to view ourselves as enduringly valuable contributors to a meaningful world. And the more others validate our value, the more special and therefore secure we can feel.”

The odds of achieving some measure of notoriety — a Nobel, an Oscar, a plaque in the Curling Hall of Fame — are so remote that it is no surprise when unrealized ambition curdles into psychological struggle.

In a 1996 study, Richard M. Ryan of the University of Rochester and Dr. Kasser, then at Rochester, conducted in-depth surveys of 100 adults, asking about their aspirations, guiding principles, and values, as well as administering standard measures of psychological well-being.

The participants in the study who focused on goals tied to others’ approval, like fame, reported significantly higher levels of distress than those interested primarily in self-acceptance and friendship.

Surveys done since then, in communities around the world, suggest the same thing: aiming for a target as elusive as fame, and so dependent on the judgments of others, is psychologically treacherous.

Freud might have agreed: he is said to have fainted only twice in his life, both times when he perceived a threat to his legacy.

What of fame-seekers who actually slip through the looking glass and make it? Few celebrities confess to their fame-yearnings, and few if any have consented to anything like a psychological study of motivation and psychological well-being. And someone at the center of a scandal has an experience different from a beloved writer of children’s books.

Many prominent novelists, actors, writers and musicians find lasting satisfaction in seeing others moved by their work. And the limos and V.I.P. seating and private beach parties cannot be too difficult to endure.

Still, scholars, psychologists and some celebrity memoirists seem to agree that, for all its rewards, fame can also eat its own — as the historian Leo Braudy has written, “lurking behind every chance to be made whole by fame is the axman of further dismemberment.”

Public recognition can bring a heightened focus on the self. Mark Schaller, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, studied the careers of Kurt Cobain, Cole Porter and John Cheever.

In their works, Dr. Schaller found, all three of these artists began referring to themselves more frequently after they became famous. The increase was slight in the case of Mr. Cobain, the rock star who committed suicide in 1994 at age 27. It was far more pronounced in Mr. Porter’s songs, and in the stories of Mr. Cheever, who also reported drinking more heavily after receiving wide acclaim.

These three artists are hardly a representative sample, and each probably had some self-destructive tendencies before achieving popular success. But increased self-consciousness can plunge almost anyone into rumination over soured relationships or lost opportunities, psychologists find. And famous people in particular are forced to judge themselves against ideals set by others.

“If you or I hear our own voice on tape, or see ourselves on camera, we might say: ‘Wait a minute, I’m a doofus. I’m not the sharp guy I thought I was,’ and we can cope with that, we can try harder,” Dr. Schaller said. “But it’s a little different if you’re a Bruce Willis or somebody. The ideals others have for you are crazy. It’s virtually impossible to meet them, and you can’t escape this heightened self-awareness.”

None of which may dissuade a single soul from grabbing for the ring if given a chance — or from longing and half-expecting lightning to strike. Because who really knows? Fame is fickle, sometimes random, and its effect on any one person is not predictable. Perhaps that is the source of its catnip fragrance: the unknowns, the secret horrors and joys, the private alchemy revealed only to those for whom the door swings open.

In compiling his research, Dr. Brim, 83, thought much about how an intense desire to reach this unknowable, alluring state of being might affect older people’s behavior, if the motive did not fade.

“I concluded that several things could happen, and one of them is to find another source of approval,” he said. “That might be a great love, if you’re lucky. Or perhaps it is a deepening belief in God. But I think many people suffer with realization that they are not going to be famous and there’s nothing they can do to solve it.”

6 Responses to “Math guy refuses top prize”

  1. noreen martin Says:

    Wonder why he refused the honor? Maybe there is more fame in refusing than accepting. Fraud was right, however, must people would choose fame over fortune. I suppose you are right in stating that most HIV or Aids persons just want to belong. We are somewhat of a outcast from society, branded so to speak, like being an incurable lepor. This is the down side. However, the good news is that we know the truth and do not have to accept this death sentence from the injust.

  2. Martin Kessler Says:

    I like the (mis)spelling of Sigumd Freud’s last name by Noreen Martin. I believe it may have been unintentional. While Freud invented a vocabulary for “understanding” the mind, I believe he was more a genius at self promotion than a scientist. I worked briefly for a couple who had tested positive and had what is conventionally termed full blown AIDS. It was apparent to me what really made them sick – they were both heavy users of Crystal, cocaine, and hash (which may reduce immunity)and probably a lot of other stuff I’m not aware of. What was interesting during my period – several months – they never got colds.

  3. noreen martin Says:

    Yes, Martin, I misspelled the doctor’s name as my fingers work faster than my brain! It seems that the common factor in Aids cases is drugs whether legal or street drugs. I am guessing that these illegal drugs work like the anti-virals, meaning that they are so nasty that they do kill most viruses, germs, etc., but the down side is that they also hurt the good guys and in time play havoc in the human body along with other bad health habits.

    Which brings to mind, a question. I wonder if they have given apes street drugs, anti-virals and if they developed Aids? Hhm, maybe this would prove one of the causes of Aids, but most unfortunate for the apes.

  4. Michael David Says:

    Martin,

    I also noticed that “Freudian typo”, and was reminded of a wonderful little book by Israel Rosenfield entitled Freud’s Megalomania . Your comment made me think of it again, and to now recommend it to you (and everyone else) most enthusiastically.

  5. noreen martin Says:

    Thanks, Michael, I will check it out and move on before I have another “Freudian typo slip”!

  6. Martin Kessler Says:

    I am not familiar with “Freud’s Megalomania” by Israel Rosenfield. I’ll check it out. However, I have a collection of books by Thomas Szasz, one of which, “The Myth of Psychotherapy”, discusses Freud and his relationship with his associates and protoges (like Carl Jung). Thomas Szasz is to psychiatry what Peter Duesberg is to AIDS hegemony.

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