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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Would you turn down a million dollars?

One of the premiere mathematicians in the world recently turned down a prize of $1,000,000.

Since 2003, Russian mathematician Grigory Perelman has offered complete proofs of a one-hundred-year-old problem called the Poincaré conjecture (we'll talk about it tomorrow). He derived his proofs using some concepts offered decades earlier by an American mathematician named Richard Hamilton.

Perelman's proofs were published, studied, verified and recognized. Perelman was named a winner of the Field Prize ($10,000) and the Clay Prize ($1,000,000). A special awards ceremony was scheduled by the Clay Mathematics Institute this July in Paris, but Perelman refused to attend or take the money.

It's not that he doesn't need it or come up with a way to spend it. Perelman lives with his mom in an apartment in St. Petersburg. He doesn't work on mathematics anymore, and the family has no money. But the city he lives in, and his friends, have offered him lots of suggestions on how they could spend his money for him. If he took all their suggestions, they would take all his money. He avoided this dilemma by not taking the cash.


Sometimes people have complex issues with wealth. Some of us are laden with it (remember the generous billionaires from a few days ago) and some of us have none. It's rough when you have no money, but life isn't a piece of cake when you are rich either. Most people have a moderate amount of wealth and a moderate amount of trouble in their lives.

Perelman says he doesn't want the money because he doesn't respect the process of chosing a winner, and he says he didn't do anything unique on his own - that his work was based on and equal to Hamilton's effort, and the prize should be shared.

This might be the equivalent of taking a test and refusing to accept an A grade because your study partner once showed you how to solve the type of problems that appeared on the test.

Or it might be that his extra-ordinarily perceptive thinking which found the solution to an incredibly complex problem also enables him to see conflicts of interest and dreams of glory in the institutions (and his neighbors in St. Petersburg). He wants to stay clear of all this.

Isn't math interesting?

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