Poincare's Prize : The Hundred-Year Quest to Solve One of Math's Greatest Puzzles
With a reclusive and eccentric hero, dramatic turns, and a million-dollar payoff, Poincaré's Prize is the stuff of great fiction. Amazingly, the story unveiled in it is true.
In the world of math, the Poincaré Conjecture was a holy grail. Decade after decade the theorem that informs how we understand the shape of the universe defied every effort to prove it. Now, after more than a century, an eccentric Russian recluse has found the solution to one of the seven greatest math problems of our time, earning the right to claim the first one-million-dollar Millennium math prize.
George Szpiro begins his masterfully told story in 1904 when Frenchman Henri Poincaré formulated a conjecture about a seemingly simple problem. Imagine an ant crawling around on a large surface. How would it know whether the surface is a flat plane, a round sphere, or a bagel- shaped object? The ant would need to lift off into space to observe the object. How could you prove the shape was spherical without actually seeing it? Simply, this is what Poincaré sought to solve.
In fact, Poincaré thought he had solved it back at the turn of the twentieth century, but soon realized his mistake. After four more years' work, he gave up. Across the generations from China to Texas, great minds stalked the solution in the wilds of higher dimensions. Among them was Grigory Perelman, a mysterious Russian who seems to have stepped out of a Dostoyevsky novel. Living in near poverty with his mother, he has refused all prizes and academic appointments, and rarely talks to anyone, including fellow mathematicians. It seemed he had lost the race in 2002, when the conjecture was widely but, again, falsely reported as solved. A year later, Perelman dropped three papers onto the Internet that not only proved the Poincaré Conjecture but enlightened the universe of higher dimensions, solving an array of even more mind-bending math with implications that will take an age to unravel. After years of review, his proof has just won him a Fields Medal, the "Nobel of math," awarded only once every four years. With no interest in fame, he refused to attend the ceremony, did not accept the medal, and stayed home to watch television.
Perelman is a St. Petersburg hero, devoted to an ascetic life of the mind. The story of the enigma in the shape of space that he cracked is part history, part math, and a fascinating tale of the most abstract kind of creativity.
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July 28, 2008
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