Colui Che Fece per Viltade il Gran Rifiuto
By Davide Castelvecchi
In my eyes, the congratulatory and self-congratulatory parties that go with the Nobel prizes or other recognitions often have a thin veil of melancholy. Someone doing something out of the ordinary is a lot more interesting — and newsworthy — than that same someone getting a prize for it years later. And by the time a scientist gets to Stockholm, the real action is usually somewhere else.
But this year’s announcement of the Fields Medals, the most coveted prizes in mathematics and only awarded once every four years, was truly shocking. At the meeting of the International Union of Mathematicians in Madrid, where the award ceremony took place, Grigory Perelman, one of the four mathematicians who had been invited to receive a medal, was conspicuously absent. Perelman had decided to turn down his prize and to stay instead in St. Petersburg, where he lives with his mother. In the 70 years since the medals have existed, no one had ever turned one down. In mathematics, that’s almost the equivalent of giving up the papacy; the last pope to abdicate was Celestine V, in 1294.
In the Inferno, Dante put Celestine in hell for his decision. Perelman may have been genuinely uninterested in that ultimate societal convention — peer recognition — just as he has been shy to talk to reporters. Ironically, though, with his refusal he attracted a lot more media interest than if he had accepted. (And sadly, the media almost completely ignored Andrei Okounkov, Terence Tao, and Wendelin Werner, the other three winners.) Perelman’s refusal was such a big story that even the New Yorker took note.
The New Yorker story focused on the intrigue revolving around another mathematician, Shing-Tung Yau, who had hyped the work of two other mathematicians who had worked on the conjecture, allegedly trying to take some of the credit away from Perelman. Another ironic twist in this is that (according to my sources) Richard Hamilton, credited by many for having started the program that Perelman completed, in turn credits Yau for having given him the idea in the first place.