St Petersburg, Aug. 20: A math genius who won fame last week for apparently spurning a million-dollar prize is living with his mother in a humble flat in St Petersburg, co-existing on her £30-a-month pension, because he has been unemployed since December.
The Sunday Telegraph tracked down the eccentric recluse who stunned the math world when he solved a century-old puzzle known as the Poincaré Conjecture.
Grigory “Grisha” Perelman’s predicament stems from an acrimonious split with a leading Russian mathematical institute, the Steklov, in 2003. When the institute in St Petersburg failed to re-elect him as a member, Perelman, 40, was left feeling an “absolutely ungifted and untalented person”, said a friend. He had a crisis of confidence and cut himself off.
Other friends say he cannot afford to travel to this week's International Mathematical Union’s congress in Madrid, where his peers want him to receive the math equivalent of the Nobel Prize, and that he is too modest to ask anyone to underwrite his trip.
Interviewed in St Petersburg last week, Perelman insisted that he was unworthy of all the attention, and was uninterested in his windfall. “I do not think anything that I say can be of the slightest public interest,” he said. “I am not saying that because I value my privacy, or that I am doing anything I want to hide. There are no top-secret projects going on here. I just believe the public has no interest in me.”
He continued: “I know that self-promotion happens a lot and if people want to do that, good luck to them, but I do not regard it as a positive thing. I realised this a long time ago and nobody is going to change my mind.
“Newspapers should be more discerning over who they write about. They should have more taste. As far as I am concerned, I can’t offer anything for their readers.
“I don’t base that on any negative experiences with the press, although they have been making up nonsense about my father being a famous physicist. It’s just plain and simply that I don’t care what anybody writes about me at all.”
Perelman has some small savings from his time as a lecturer, but is apparently reluctant to supplement them with the $1 million (£531,000) offered by the Clay Mathematics Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for solving one of the world’s seven Millennium Problems.
The Poincaré Conjecture was first posed by the French mathematician, Jules Henri Poincaré, in 1904, and seeks to understand the shape of the universe by linking shapes, spaces and surfaces.
Friends say that evidence of Perelman’s innate modesty came when — having finally solved the problem after more than 10 years’ work — he simply posted his conclusion on the Internet, rather than publishing his explanation in a recognised journal. “If anybody is interested in my way of solving the problem, it’s all there — let them go and read about it,” said Perelman. “I have published all my calculations. This is what I can offer the public.”
Friends were not surprised to learn that he was living with his mother. The Jewish family — he has a younger sister, Elena, also a mathematician — was always close. One friend, Sergey Rukshin, head of St Petersburg Mathematical Centre for Gifted Students, gave Perelman his first break as a teenager.
At 16, he won a gold medal at the 1982 International Mathematical Olympiad, with a perfect score of 42. He was also a talented violinist and played table tennis. It was after gaining his PhD from St Petersburg State University that Perelman first worked at the Steklov Institute, part of the Russian Academy of Science. Later, he worked in America before returning to the Steklov in 1996. Its rejection of him, three years ago, devastated Perelman, said Rukshin.