I 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.
I 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.