Thursday, July 8, 2010

It's a Wise Child

Just before the Fourth of July weekend, the Times ran a short piece about Grigory Perelman. Grigory, otherwise known as Grisha, is the mathematics wiz— though wiz does little justice to his level of abstract genius—who proved the Poincaré conjecture, which “hypothesizes that any three-dimensional space without holes is essentially a sphere” (“A Math Problem Solver Declines a $1 Million Dollar Prize,” NYT, 7/1/10). The story was tucked away at the bottom of a page in the middle of the paper, and went on to describe how Perelman had turned down the million-dollar prize from the Clay Mathematics Institute in Cambridge, MA. Perelman had previously turned down one of math’s most coveted awards, the Fields Medal, which if you remember makes a brief appearance in Good Will Hunting. The Times went on to describe the whole fiasco around the Fields Medal: how Perelman presented his proof in 2003, and how “after a brief barnstorming tour in the United States, during which he refused interviews, Dr. Perelman returned to Russia, leaving the world’s mathematicians to pick up the pieces.” Apparently it was too much for Perelman who, the Times reported, moved in with his mother and left his position at the Steklov Mathematical Institute. Well, what is there to say? All of this is somehow reminiscent of that famous clan of prodigies, the Glass family, whose tragic members have their brief day in the sun on a radio quiz show called “It’s a Wise Child.” (Naturally, The Royal Tenenbaums owe their existence to the Glasses.)  Of course, the ultimate reclusive genius is J.D. Salinger, who left New York literary society to live a reclusive existence in Cornish, New Hampshire, just as his Russian counterpart would walk out of the spotlight, off the stage of life, many years later. 

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