Mathematical politics and the Poincare Conjecture

posted by Jason Kottke Aug 23, 2006

As I mentioned yesterday, the New Yorker published an article by Sylvia Nasar1 and David Gruber about the recent proof of the Poincare Conjecture2. (Previous coverage in the NY Times and the Guardian.) The article, which is unavailable from the New Yorker's web site (they've now made it available), contains the only interview I've seen with Grigory Perelman, the Russian mathematician who published a potential proof of the conjecture in late 2002, gave a series of lectures in the US, and then went back to Russia. Since then, he hasn't communicated with anyone about the proof, has quit mathematics, and recently refused the Fields Medal, the most prestigious award that mathematics has to offer, saying:

It was completely irrelevent for me. Everybody understood that if the proof is correct then no other recognition is needed.

Meanwhile, a Chinese group of mathematicians, led by Shing-Tung Yau3, are claiming that Perelman's proof was too complicated and are offering a reworked proof instead of Perelman's. That is, they're claiming the first complete proof of the conjecture. Yau The active director of Yau's mathematics institute explained the relative contributions thusly:

Hamilton contributed over fifty per cent; the Russian, Perelman, about twenty five per cent; and the Chinese, Yau, Zhu, and Cao et al., about thirty per cent. (Evidently, simple addition can sometimes trip up even a mathematician.)

Clearly the Chinese gave more than 100% in solving this proof, but Yau is regarded by some mathematicians as attempting to grab glory that does not belong to him. John Morgan, a mathematician at Columbia University, says:

Perelman already did it and what he did was complete and correct. I don't seen anything that [Yau et al.] did different.

Yau wants to be associated with the proof of the Poincare Conjecture, to have China associated with it, and for his student, Zhu, to be elevated in status by it. The $1 million in prize money for the proof of the conjecture offered by the Clay Mathematics Institute can't be far from Yau's mind as well. For his part, Grigory Perelman won't say whether he'll accept the prize money until it is offered. Stay tuned, I guess.

[1] Nasar wrote A Beautiful Mind, a book about mathematician John Nash.

[2] Poincare (properly written as Poincaré) is pronounced Pwan-cah-RAY, not Poyn-care as I said it up until a few weeks ago.

[3] Yau proved a conjecture by Eugenio Calabi which gave birth to a highly useful mathematical structure called a Calabi-Yau manifold; Yau won the Fields Medal for it. The C-Y manifold is important in string theory and Andrew Wiles used it as part of his proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. In short, Yau is a mathematical stud, no question.