Well… yikes! Remember my article on the New Yorker piece on the Fields Medal, the Poincare Conjecture, and the mathematicians Perelman and Yau? Remember that I said:
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 donâ€™t know.
Well, it seems that Yau is quite sure that it is not going to stop there. There was a letter sent to the New Yorker and the authors of the article (apparently) on his behalf by legal counsel. It is discussed and can be found on a web page under Yau’s name. The page is in the form of a press release, and I quote:
Pulitzer-prize finalist Sylvia Nasar (â€œA Beautiful Mindâ€) defamed world renowned Harvard mathematics professor Dr. Shing-Tung Yau, in an article about a noteworthy mathematical proof in the New Yorker magazine entitled â€œManifold Destinyâ€ (August 28, 2006), according to a letter written by Dr. Yauâ€™s attorney, Howard M. Cooper of Todd & Weld LLP of Boston. In the letter, Dr. Yau has demanded that the New Yorker and Nasar make a prominent correction of the errors in the article, and apologize for an insulting illustration that accompanied it.
Well, yes I can see that can certainly be the case. Strong things were said in the article indeed. I note that the site goes on to say, very interestingly:
The attorney letter alleges that Ms. Nasar misrepresented her intentions in emails to him in which she claimed an interest in the â€œreuniting of physics and mathematicsâ€ and that she had been impressed with praise of his work from Stephen Hawking. Never during the three months in which she worked on the article, according to the letter, was Dr. Yau made aware of or asked to respond to charges leveled against him in the published article, claiming that Dr. Yau was trying to take credit for the solution of the PoincarÃ© Conjecture away from Russian mathematician Grigory Perelman. Contrary to the article, there has never been a â€˜battleâ€™ over credit for the solution, said the letter. Many of the other scholars interviewed by Ms. Nasar report being similarly deceived, according to the letter, with one professor at the University of Michigan comparing her work to that of the notorious fabricator, Jason Blair of The New York Times.
The letter can be found as a pdf file here.
Assuming all the above is not an elaborate hoax, if it is the case that the authors of the piece behaved in that was, it is very disappointing, since it read as quite a good telling of the story of the mathematics and some of the inevitably strong personalities involved. My reading of it was: Yes, there are strong personalities involved, and maybe there was a bit of an inevitable journalistic spin put on it, but the article was showing part of the cut and thrust of the field… showing some of the life in the field, showing that mathematics is alive and worth being passionate about. This is a good thing to get out there to the public, in my opinion, but not at the expense of sullying someone’s reputation. If the authors were really quite as deceptive as suggested, and twisted the tale so much that the reality is completely unrecognisable, then that is a shame.
If this is true, it will go from being a lovely New Yorker article to a quite dreadful one. Very sad indeed.
We’ll have to see what happens…
(Spotted at Ars Mathematica.)