“Mathematics is not as pure as you assume”: Sylvia Nasar and Masha Gessen at Auckland Writers and Readers Festival

Sylvia Nasar  - Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2013
Sylvia Nasar

Ah, the sweet satisfaction of getting that first Festival session under one’s belt. It was non-fiction, scientific, and fascinating: Tragic Brilliance. American professor Sylvia Nasar wrote A Beautiful Mind about the mathematician John Forbes Nash. Russian journalist Masha Gessen wrote Perfect Rigour on another mathematical eccentric, Grigori Perelman, drawing partly on an interview Nasar once conducted with him. Not so tragic mathematician Steven Galbraith ably chaired the session, allowing each woman to tell their stories with plenty of breathing room.

Grigori Perelman was discussed in some detail. Here’s a snippet from Wikipedia for those who don’t know anything about him:

In 1994, Perelman proved the soul conjecture. In 2003, he proved Thurston’s geometrization conjecture. This consequently solved in the affirmative the Poincaré conjecture, posed in 1904, which before its solution was viewed as one of the most important and difficult open problems in topology.

Sylvia Nasar went looking for this enigma, believing his story had all the elements of “an academic bodice ripper”. Perelman had refused numerous awards and accolades for his work, and his proof had also been dramatically refuted as flawed by a Chinese mathematician. The New Yorker article Manifold destiny by Sylvia Nasar and David Gruber gives a description of this.

After traipsing all over St Petersburg without success, she saw Perelman in an address where he had spent his college years. The hermit’s first words to her (knowing she had writter A beautiful mind): “You’re a writer, I didn’t read the book but I saw the movie with Russell Crowe”.

Masha Gessen  - Auckland Writers and Readers Festival 2013
Masha Gessen

Masha Gessen explored Perelman more, and gave details of a man separating himself from society, from his friends, and becoming a hermit. His work is astonishing. It took two groups of mathematicians 3 years to explicate his work (taking it from 8 pages to 800) – and Gessen said to explain it to the general population it would need to be expanded by another factor of ten.

After solving the Poincaré conjecture, Perelman was insulted by being offered jobs in the United States. He had wanted tenure years earlier, but now he felt “they were trying to buy his accomplishment”. Masha explained how he had refused various awards for reasons that were “extremely consistent logically”.

Sylvia Nasar gave us a compelling portrait of Grigori Perelman – emphasising how cultured he is, an amazing reader informed by English and Russian literature, a total history buff, and passionate about opera.

She spoke more about John Nash, and how his Nobel Prize almost didn’t happen, and that “Game theory was John Nash’s juvenalia”. Her book is:

A drama about the human mind, and the mystery of the human mind … There are so many stories in literature and theatre about a meteoric rise and a catastrophic fall.

Nash went from maths rock star, producing “one amazing deep piece of pure mathematics after another” to 30 years of losing everything, even teeth. His wife was his supporter through this decline, and sadly Sylvia observed that one of John’s sons is also schizophrenic – “as sick now as his father ever was”.

Masha Gessen immersed herself in topology for a year to understand the dramaturgy of Perelman’s proof  to understand”the light that the proof shone on mathematical structures”.

The discussion turned to the subject’s cooperation with books. Sylvia said John Nash was uncooperative, and Masha observed of her subjects Perelman and Putin:

I like writing about people I can’t talk to.

The session ended with two thoughts – Sylvia on the movie about John Nash A Beautiful Mind  – “people loved it all around the world … it put the audience in his shoes”. And Marsha on the sad decline of Grigori Perelman – winding down his relationships, a cultured man saying “I’m not reading anything at all”.

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