‘Perfect Rigor: A Genius + the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century'
By: Masha Gessen
Rating: Three out of five bookmarks
What is the nature of genius? Is it something naturally inherent, or something that can be cultivated by environment and tutelage? Does it mean someone has a mind that can go beyond the normal human limitations, or someone who could be classified as having a mental disorder?
Masha Gessen's book searches for these answers as she researches the story of one such proclaimed genius, a man whose childhood, adulthood and very existence breathed mathematics - an obsession that would unravel one of the greatest mathematical mysteries of the century and would eventually cause him to turn away from the rest of the world.
"Perfect Rigor" is an unusual biography in that, while delving into the life of its subject who is still alive and well today, the author never could interview the man whom the book is about. The life of Grigory Perelman, an extraordinary Russian mathematician, is a fascinating one, although most people have not heard of him.
He came into the public eye in the year 2000, when the Clay Mathematics Institute in Boston held a conference that presented seven problems that had never been solved. Anyone who could solve any of the problems would be the recipient of $1 million, and mathematicians from all over the world attended to pose their theories.
One of the unsolvable problems, the Poincaré Conjecture, was solved in 2002 by a proof posted by Perelman on the Internet. Yet once his proof came to light and it was determined to be correct, the mathematician withdrew from society, refusing the prize money, invitations to give lectures and countless offers for professorships at universities.
Gessen explores the factors leading to Perelman's genius and personality, through interviews with the teachers, classmates and colleagues who knew him.
There is much to take in while reading this novel, but Gessen blends the history of Russian academia in the 20th century, explanations of topology and theories relevant to Perelman's story and the social/political obstacles that affected hiseducation.
Where mathematics was viewed as an antithesis to Stalin's regime in the 1930s and 40s (math was logical and provoked argument; the regime relied on fear and unpredictability to control its citizens), it developed into an intense competitive field in the following decades.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the story was how Perelman's purely logical mind made him react differently than others to the world around him. He was incapable of understanding why others would lie; he could not even grasp the concept of prejudice that affected Soviet society - first place at math competitions was often denied him because of his Jewish background. But since he could not understand prejudice, he interpreted his second-place ranking as failure on his part, which only fed his obsession and pushed him to work harder in his studies.
When he solved the Poincaré Conjecture, it was not for the prize money as journalists and rivals implied - Perelman simply knew it was a problem that needed to be solved, and he was the one who could provide the answer.
That was how attuned his mind was to math - he needed no monetary motivation or reward for his genius, since it was part of who and what he is.
"Perfect Rigor" offers a look into the side of mathematics we rarely think about: where logic and truth can be tested by rivalries, social strains and human flaws. While this book might be a little dry for those who prefer something more character-driven or emotionally engaging, it moves at a good pace and should hold the attention of any reader looking for a well-written biography. I think it might also inspire a few readers out there to brush up on their math skills, or at least learn more about the unsolvable questions that needed an unsung genius to answer.
Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. E-mail her if you know of a good book to review.