Thursday, August 24, 2006

Perelman and the new Russia

Russian geniuses tend to ere toward the inscrutable. Consider Garry Kasparov, probably the greatest chess player in the game’s long history, famed for his arrogance, who publicly played the world’s greatest chest computers and lost bitterly. He followed this by retiring from chess to launch a quixotic political career (all political careers are quixotic in Putin’s Russia).

Grigory “Grisha” Perelman, a St Petersburg mathematician has the formula down to an art. After studying in Russia then teaching in the US, he returned home to a St Petersburg college of mathematics. In the last few years, he has become an unemployed recluse, moved back in with his mother, and solved one of the great mathematical puzzles of our time.

Tall and bearded, Perelman eerily resembles popular images of Rasputin. His solution to Poincare’s Conjecture, a hundred year old puzzle in topology, first appeared a few years ago. Eschewing peer review, he published two articles on the internet, and has spoken in the US about his solution. To date, no one can find anything wrong with it.

Perelman has made the issue rather more newsworthy by apparently declining a Fields Medal for his work. This is the second time he has declined a cash prize. (By some accounts he refused the Fields because he could not afford to travel to accept it.) A million dollar one-time prize for a solution to the problem remains unclaimed, so his not-in-it-for-the-money resolve stands to be tested further.

Although the mathematician doesn’t look likely to run for office anytime soon, he and Kasparov make interesting points of reference for current Russian politics. The inscrutable, bullheaded authoritarianism of Putin’s government is reflected in these moody geniuses. Just as the two seem to experience fame with a certain removed arrogance, Russia has come to seem arrogant and intransigent to the outside world—unmoving on regional politics, and content to bully its neighbors, not long ago its colonial possessions, over natural resource issues. Putin, Perelman and Kasparov are not the types to explain their motives. They are far too concerned with carrying them out.

Kasparov’s pro-western, anti-Putin politics seem belied by his own personality—in any case they aren’t likely to get him too far, given the strength of support for Putin and the murky state of the Russian electoral system. Perelman’s politics don’t look likely to be anything other than a mystery to the rest of us. But they reflect the character of an increasingly revanchist and potentially imperial new Russia. Moscow and its intellectuals remain inclined to reveal their intentions through action.

Here’s a BBC bit on Perelman. The New Yorker apparently has a profile in the current issue, but it isn’t online and I’ve not yet read it. Here’s the wiki on Kasparov.

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