Epic Struggles in Mathematics

fields medal frontI have this problem: I don’t really have enough hours in each day. One of the symptoms of this problem is a huge pile of unread or partially read issues of the New Yorker. Sometimes I try to catch up. This catching up is incomplete, of course, and sometimes I miss articles of direct relevance to my field. Sometimes I miss them even when they are in an issue I skimmed through, promising to read later more thoroughly. This time, I missed the August 28th article called “Manifold Destiny” (by Sylvia Nasar and David Gruber), about the quest of some mathematicians to understand the Poincare conjecture. The subtitle of the article in the table of contents is “Who really solved the Poincare conjecture?”. The story starts out with a report on a talk at the Strings 2006 conference in Beijing.

[Update: After reading the below, do read this post about the letter (apparently from Yau’s lawyer) about the issue. His being painted in the role of villain may have been rather over the top, and the writers may have not behaved very well at all… so the word “masterpiece” I used below may well be totally wrong. I’m so glad that I wrote the cautionary remarks at the end now.]

As a piece of writing for the non-mathematician’s consumption, it is another New Yorker masterpiece. It is of course several pages long, and so there’s plenty of meat (or tofu, if you’re that way inclined) and -because every editor wants this in a science story- it has a hero, a villain, high-stakes political intrique, the James Bond-ian ping-pong of international settings, the threat of theft, jealousy, rumours of abuse of power … it is only short of a damsel in distress (although maybe another reading will turn one up). Oh, and it has the actual mathematics issue, not just lurking, but actually in substantial form, more or less.

fields medal backI highly recommend the article. (Online here.) I cannot comment upon whether the hero of the story (Grigory Perelman) is as heroic as painted, or whether the villian of the piece (Shing-Tung Yau) is really as villainous. The anecdotes that are used to do the painting may well be able to be supplemented by other anecdotes that tell another story, as is sometimes the case. I simply don’t know. But it tells the outsider a lot about the internal machinations of research in mathematics and science, shows that the people involved are not just the usual one-dimensional cardboard cutouts, but human beings with real blood flowing in their veins, with real passions.

…and it is a good read.


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12 Responses to Epic Struggles in Mathematics

  1. Jude says:

    I have the same problem with The New Yorker. I grabbed a copy to take to a situation where I thought I’d end up waiting and noticed that all the letters to the editor referred to the article you mention, which is one I missed. So I stacked up the most recent 4 or 5, and I’m going to read through them this week.

    Certain New Yorker articles have changed my entire perception of the world, so it feels almost criminal to recycle an issue without reading it. Somehow, though, I always manage to check out all the cartoons.

  2. Clifford says:

    Certain New Yorker articles have changed my entire perception of the world, so it feels almost criminal to recycle an issue without reading it.

    I know. This is why I have not thrown one out for over a decade. It is a bit of a problem, since as you know it is weekly.


  3. Say Lee says:

    That’s indeed a great read, revealing some details that I’m not aware of, especially after I’ve been following the same saga unfolding in the Chinese blogosphere (e.g., http://www.cnd.org/).

    However, one seems to get a different portrayal of Yau in the fallout between Yao and Tian and the former’s criticism of Peking University. While there are sporadic posts to the contrary, the majority accepts Yau’s outbursts as the lone voice of reason amidst the purported political shenanigans and largesse that typify higher education in China.

    That Perelman was awarded the Fields Medal, his refusal to accepting it notwithstanding, is clear affirmation of his pivotal role in solving the Poincare Conjecture. But only time will tell whether Zhu/Cao’s contribution is indeed a crowning achievement as Yau has asserted.

  4. Say Lee says:

    Or Beijing University, as is more politically known today.

    Anyway, some English blogs on a similar thread are also available, e.g., http://sun-bin.blogspot.com/2005/12/controversy-in-process-to-build-world.html.

    Given the gag order by the power-that-be, it’s unlikely that the truth will emerge. But the veracity of the contribution of Zhu/Cao to solving the Poincare Conjecture or otherwise, does lie in the hands of the international community, which we await.

  5. boreds says:

    Thanks for that. For some reason I didn’t realise you could print these off without a subscription. Shockingly, in the UK the NYer is priced at pounds=dollars. I think it was 4.50GBP last time I saw checked.

    I wonder what Yau thinks of the article.

  6. John Branch says:

    A note to boreds: the New Yorker makes some, but not all, of its articles available online. Obviously, the one on Perelman and Yau is among those you can read without having to buy the print edition.

    Though I agree with Clifford that this tale has many elements of a classic story, in one sense Perelman is an unusual hero. It seems to me his concern is mainly for the problem to be solved, not for himself to be recognized as the one who solved it (which is not to say that he doesn’t care who’s credited). The French writer Simone Weil pointed out that great works of truth and beauty are impersonal, but that’s not exactly a common attitude these days.

  7. Say Lee says:

    Read the following as a rebuttal to the New Yorker article:

    Witch hunt of S. T. Yau!

    I don’t subscribe to the New Yorker and therefore am not sure whether there have been any readers’ comments published subsequent to the article.

    While the above rebuttal is written anonymously, the writer does have a point as regards the lack of balanced journalism. However, one may also surmise that this could be a deliberate attempt to provoke further responses in order to get to the bottom, if indeed there is one.

  8. Say Lee says:

    Actually there is an online Forum for the New Yorker but one needs to register (free) for access. But once in, you will read several postings on the article by Sylvia Nasar and David Gruber. which have been variously described as “character assasination” , “inaccurate”, etc. on the article’s portrayal of ST Yau.

  9. Clifford says:

    Excellent. This fits with my cautious remarks at the end of my own description of the article. There were also two letters on the letters page the week after that stressed many positive aspects of Yau. Maybe I shall go look, and bring some of the juicier remarks here.



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