W ho is Grigori “Grisha” Perelman? He is a man I would give my eye teeth to meet, that’s who. The problem is that meeting Perelman is nearly impossible. The Russian mathematician is famously reclusive; doesn’t check email or answer letters. He lives in St Petersburg, Russia, with his mother. He also happens to be the only mathematician ever to refuse the Fields Medal (often referred to as the Math Nobel Prize). King Juan Carlos of Spain presented the medal at a gala ceremony last year. Perelman not only didn’t show up for the event, but also turned down the prize, which was awarded to him for solving the Poincare’s Conjecture, a riddle that had perplexed mathematicians for more than a century.
Most societies, and I include India in this list, demand something different from their geniuses, be they mathematicians, artists or musicians. We expect these gifted creatures to live by a different set of rules from us mere mortals. We expect them to be intellectually honest and, more important, emotionally pure. There is nothing more sad than an artist who sells his soul for money. Happens in Bollywood every day, I know, but then Bollywood is hardly the moral high ground, or for that matter, the temple of high art. Recently, I read in the paper that Aamir Khan’s first directorial venture, Taaren Zameen Pe, was originally to be directed by scriptwriter Amol Gupte. It was Gupte’s story, his creation. Halfway through the project, Aamir threatened to quit because of “creative differences”. Gupte, instead, asked Aamir to take over and direct the project. Did Gupte sell his creative soul to keep his project alive? Probably. Did he do it because his star, or should I say villain, demanded it? Probably.
We live in a commercial world. Markets rule, as economists keep reminding us. True, but not all the time. Every now and then, there are people who refuse to play by the market rules. They refuse to engage; often they simply walk away. Grigori Perelman did. After getting his Math training in Princeton and New York University, one morning he simply packed his bags and moved back to Russia. He worked better in his homeland, he said. He didn’t have a job. He simply moved back into his childhood home and decided to solve the Poincare Conjecture in solitude; away from the commercial forces that would influence and shape a lesser mathematician. The treadmill of life demands certain things from everyone. Artists, even good ones, have to produce; musicians, even the best of them, have to pander to an audience; scientists, even the geniuses, have to write papers and apply for grants. This is the world we live in. It takes courage to do what Perelman did—to get off the treadmill and follow a lone star.
Now, I am hardly a mathematician. Unlike my husband, who thinks in graphs, columns and numbers, I think in words and visual images. But of all the sciences, I “get” mathematics, probably because, unlike applied sciences such as chemistry or biology, mathematics isn’t open to interpretation or revision in the face of new evidence. It is a pure science, closer to music than biology. Like painting or sculpture, mathematics follows an absolute, not relative, approach. Once a mathematical axiom or theorem is proved and peer reviewed, it becomes a truth. Similarly, once a painting is done, it becomes the artist’s “truth”. You can hate it, you can question its worth, you can call it trash but the one thing you cannot say is that it is “wrong”. Maths and music, or for that matter maths and art, share this fundamental world view. Which is why it is easy to call Grigori Perelman a mathematician with an artist’s soul. It is no surprise that Perelman’s only interest besides maths is opera.
Perelman solved the Poincare Conjecture by the way. He didn’t hold a press conference to announce that he had done it. He simply posted it on the Internet in arxiv.org, a site used by mathematicians to submit prepublication papers. Perelman asked his peers to review his solution of Poincare’s Conjecture. He didn’t worry about being wrong and, therefore, publicly humiliated; he didn’t worry about someone stealing his solution and claiming it was their own; he didn’t think about what he would get out of this epoch-making solution. He cared only for the maths and its solution. That is what I call purity.
Artistic purity (or in this case, scientific purity) is a double-edged sword. For better or worse, creative purity often means poverty. We, in India, have a history of poverty- stricken poets who were patronized by kings (the moneybags). Similarly, Srinivasa Ramanujam was living in poverty in Tamil Nadu when he “knew infinity”. It took a Hardy to coax number theory out of him as explained in Robert Kanigel’s excellent book.
What is your average Indian crorepati to do? Walk away from everything you’ve worked for? I think so. I am no self-help guru. But if you are lucky enough to have a calling in a field unrelated to your job, you would be doing yourself a favour by heeding it. Make your money and give it all away like Bill Gates is doing. Or, like Grigori Perelman, simply walk away. Retreating to the forest is, after all, a great Indian tradition. We have a word for it: vanaprastha. Just look at Grisha Perelman.
Shoba is studying Ramanujam’s number theory—without much success. Email your feedback to her at