Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Was it worth it?

Why do mathematicians are always portrayed as weird people? Are they more weird than others? Do they always have to be weird to become good mathematicians? Am I a real mathematician? Am I weird? Hopefully the answer to the two last questions is "no". But it can make another question - if I am not a real mathematician is it because I am not weird, or I am not weird because I never was a real mathematician?
I finished reading a book I wrote some in my previous blog.

I liked to read all those interviews Masha Gessen conducted - she really did a great research about Perelman. Somewhere she mentions that she thinks herself that the chances Perelman himself will read the book "are infinitesimal". I wish he would read and then he would be the one to say what he thinks about it. There are no pictures in the book which was a disappointment. I understand reasons - it is cheaper for a publisher to print just a text. So I tried to supply missing images with Google image search. The author wrote about St. Petersburg that the only time it is inhabitable is late spring meaning June and famous White Nights in St. Petersburg. The rest of the descriptions mentioning St. Petersburg are mostly - gloomy, rainy, cold, grey, windy...
 It has been a long time since I last was in St. Petersburg but I have been there with different weather conditions and for me it always has been one of the most beautiful cities - so it must be for Perelman too, otherwise he would have left with all the chances and offers he had over the years.
There used to be a difference in people who lived in St. Petersburg and in Moscow, it may still exists. I used to know people from both cities and they all said the same - if they lived in St.Petersburg, they could not possibly imagine to live in Moscow and vice versa.
I always liked St. Petersburg better. May be because of the romantic stories about "white nights" I heard since I was a child - we had in Latvia short nights in June but I always was jealous of St.Petersburg when at the same time it never really got dark - like in this picture with Troickij most (Trinity bridge) at 2am in June. Also St. Petersburg is next to Baltic Sea - the same as my native city Riga.

 For several summers in a row I used to take international students there for a short visit before they left home, and one of the "must-see places" was Hermitage.
 There were always long lines but I had my tricks how to get there early and avoid crowds. Everybody was going to see two Leonardo da Vinci paintings, so I knew to get my group there first so we can really enjoy them. I do wish that Gessen's book would have at least some pictures of St.Petersburg.
This is Lyceum 239 in St. Petersburg how it is called now, at the time Grisha Perelman went there it was School No.239 - "the graduates of this school thanked the school for opening their minds, for teaching them intelligence, erudition, and for giving them a head start in their higher education." (p.58). Perelman was there in so called "club class" - he and his classmates were from the Math Club trained by Rukshin for Math Olympiads. Perelman there was "allowed to concentrate on mathematics to the exclusion of - literally-almost everything else."(p.59).

In  his final year of the school Grisha Perelman scored a perfect score in IMO. As a winner of IMO he was entitled to enter university without entrance exams. The author of the book explains in great deal how hard it was for Jewish to enter universities. She draws on her personal experience - that of her parents and that they had "a chilling dread of trying to explain to your child that some of the world is so unfair as to make all hope futile".(p.65)
You do not have to be Jewish to have this experience, I had it also back in Soviet Union and I had in US also. Most of the time it has been not because you are not smart enough but because you are not from the "right family" or it may be said - you are not the right class - too low class, we, aristocrats, are the different bread...

 In a book it is some about this kinda of attitude also - when dirty fights are happening among mathematicians to become Academy of Sciences members. There is a mention about two very famous Russian mathematicians - Kolmogorov and Alexandrov - who went against their teacher Luzin in 1936 when Alexandrov desired the status of the member of the Academy of Sciences and perhaps that also helped them to cover up the fact of being a homosexual couple (it was considered criminal in Soviet Union).

Grisha Perelman's schoolmates and teachers remembered him being extremely honest. He always maintained high standards in school and in University, and later in the Steklov Institute. This is the picture of the old part of the university in St. Petersburg which was founded in 1724, construction of the buildings on  Vassilij Island was ordered by Peter the Great.

Perelman was lucky to have "guardian angels" looking after him during his university studies and also when he became a graduate student in Lenigrad branch of the Steklov Institute: "Rukshin shepherded him into competitive mathematics, Ryzhik coddled him through high school, Zalgaller nutured his problem-solving skills at the university and haded him off to Alexandrov and Burago to ensure that he practiced mathematics uninterrupted and unimpeded. Burago passed him on to Gromov, who led him out into the world."(p.111)

It is also mentioned in a book that all this time he had a caring mother around, so he even did not need to know about everyday chores.

I think that Grigory Perelman is a wonderful example of amazing results when talented person had dedicated teachers to support him. He was given all possibilities to think just about the mathematics and live the life the way he wanted. As a result he solved a great problem. He reached the top. And that is when he finally faced the reality of life, how things are going in this world, that you cannot be in isolation forever. And he realizes that the world is not the way he thinks it should be or wants it to be, so he turns back to the world.
Masha Gessen speculates that he had Asperger's symptom, that most of the mathematicians have it. I am not sure how appropriate is this part in the book - to talk about somebody's medical condition whether it exists or not, even if it is supported by famous psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, cousin of famous actor Sacha Baron-Cohen.

I know couple other people who have become brilliant mathematicians because they also had devoted mothers who took care of them and they had great teachers. They are all men.

I have met successful women in mathematics who are referred as an examples that it is possible to have family and children and to be a mathematician with lots of publications necessary for academic advancement. It turned out - they also had mothers taking care of their kids (almost all the time) and doing all housework...

Is it really Asperger's symptom or is it this specific isolation from everyday life which makes mathematicians weird?

And when somebody like Perelman has reached his goal - he solved the problem nobody else could solve for 100 years - he is faced with all the realities at once and he is so disappointed that he announces that he quits mathematics.

The mathematical problem is solved but there is still a question left -
if this is a price to pay for it - was it worth it?  To realize that all this time spent in search of the solution of one problem no matter how great the problem was, was only to see how alone you are? Of course, million dollars cannot pay for that.

Money cannot buy the time that has gone...


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Many years ago I read a magazine article (NYTimes Magazine?) about Paul Erdos. The author wanted the reader to come to the same conclusion you have mentioned, that mathematicians are odd characters, not capable of living normal lives, and one could certainly reach this conclusion by examining Erdos's life. After all, he didn't have a real job, or a real home. He moved from place to place working with different mathematicians in each location.

    But what the author missed was that the people who helped him out, who arranged his visits, his housing, his travel, his funding, were themselves mathematicians. I came to the conclusion that lots of mathematicians are more than competent at daily life and moreover will go to great lengths to assist the very good mathematician who isn't so competent.