Sunday, August 27, 2006

Grigory Perelman is a great hero

My friend Anant says in his comment on this post:

... I think Perelman is one of the great heroes of all time. We need more such. [...]

I entirely agree. The fight for academic credit, encouraged by metrics such as citations, can get ugly sometimes. Unfunnily enough, it seems to get uglier when the stakes are lower. When the rest of the world seems to choose ugliness, Perelman has the good sense -- and the guts -- to choose otherwise. We should applaud him for this choice.

George Johnson has some more on this theme in his NYTimes piece:

... It was not so much a medal that he was rejecting but the idea that in the search for nature’s secrets the discoverer is more important than the discovery.

“I do not think anything that I say can be of the slightest public interest,” he told a London newspaper, The Telegraph, instantly making himself more interesting. “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.”


  1. gaddeswarup said...

    Though Perelman comes out smelling roses,there is a problem with this practice (posting, announcements, revisions etc which go on for years. Pl see the New Scientist article that I mentioned before). Sometimes, even working in a topic (e.g. geometric group theory) is difficult. One does not know what is established and what is not.

  2. Anant said...

    I guess your comments are justified.
    Of course these could have been the
    reasons for Perelman's problems with
    Steklov, and of course that is probably
    why there is a controversy in the
    first place. However, it must also
    be said that all of science has been
    turned into a business with grants,
    proposals, awards, promotions. It is
    good to see that once in a while
    someone does rebel. There is also
    pressure on everyone to be a businessman
    and it is good to see a counterexample.
    Again, the 'price's that Perelman
    has paid is his isolation.

  3. gaddeswarup said...

    I too admire Perelman and think that his behaviour has been exemplary as well as consistent. The trouble is many others are pracicing the strategy of posting half baked ideas and then modifying over years. Unless one is in some gang it is difficult to know what exactly is known or to get grants or publish. Myasnikov and Kharlampovich announced in 98 the solutions of Tarski problems. They kept continuously modifying their preprints, sometimes taking them off. Meanwhile another (Sela) announced a solution to one of the problems and his solution of over 1000 pages came over six years in several years. Just this June, Myasnikov and Kharlampovich published what they claim are the complete proofs. Many of their papers came in Proceedings of conferences or commnicated by their Russian friends. Nobody knows yet whether any of these are completely correct. There are several important intermediate results and other results of independent interest. The length and difficulty of the papers makes it difficult for referrees and the doubts make it difficult for others to use the results. Some others have used these strategies preempt others from working on some problems. Expositions have been bad ; I have known cases where people say that 'it is easy to see' when they do not have proofs. And so on. Unless there are agreed norms which most should try to confirm to, it can be chaotic. We cannot have one set of norms for bigshots and another set for others. Of course, the problem is then some of these extraordinary people may opt out and we loose their insights.