Picking Mushrooms

From Frances Bonahan s colloquiumAha. It’s one of those moments in mathematics press coverage that the journalists love, since all the stereotypes about how weird people working on abstract things can be are able to be brought out and highlighted, and words like genius, prodigy, recluse, eccentric, etc, get thrown about in equal measure.

Yes, Grigory Perelman has being turning down stuff again. You may recall him refusing the Fields Medal four years ago. Now he is refusing the Clay Mathematics Institute’s million dollar payout. Perelman proved the Poincaré conjecture a while back (see this older BBC article about that, along with a non-technical mention of the content of the conjecture – see also here, a related post the picture above right is from), which is on the Clay’s list of Big Problems whose collective heads have a bounty on them. He’s apparently a bit eccentric and the press love it, so most articles I’ve seen are mostly taken up with stuff like the following I saw in the Guardian:

Perelman is currently jobless and lives with his mother and sister in a small flat in St Petersburg. (He has his own spartan one-bedroom flat, allegedly full of cockroaches, but rarely uses it.)

Perelman refuses to talk to the journalists camped outside his home. One who managed to reach him on his mobile was told: “You are disturbing me. I am picking mushrooms.” The handful of neighbours who have seen him paint a picture of a scruffily dressed, unworldly eccentric. “He always wears the same tatty coat and trousers. He never cuts his nails or beard. When he walks he simply stares at the ground, rather than looking from side to side,” one told a Moscow newspaper.

“He has rather strange moral principles. He feels tiny improper things very strongly,” says Sergei Kisliakov, director of St Petersburg’s Steklov Mathematics Institute, where the maths prodigy once worked as a researcher.


Well, anyway, here’s a more detailed blog post, by Charles Daney over at Science and Reason about the topology and the content of the conjecture, if you’re interested.


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8 Responses to Picking Mushrooms

  1. kim says:

    What is your view on the use of words such as genius, prodigy, recluse, eccentric and so forth by the press in relation to people in maths/physics?

  2. Clifford says:


    Any guesses, from what I wrote? 😀


  3. kim says:


    It’s clear from your previous posts that you dont approve of the labelling of scientists with adjectives like recluse and eccentric. But what about genius and prodigy? Do you disapprove of these too and why?

  4. Clifford says:

    “Genius” and “prodigy” are fine words, but I find they are most often used as placeholder terms in our society for people who “magically” can do things that are considered extraordinary. This masks the fact that hard work and dedication are needed. Hours of application and practice. That’s the magic, but people hardly ever say this. It’s all part of the “them” and “us” distortion business that I find helps restricts access.


  5. Clifford says:

    Further, it is not that I don’t approve of the use of any of the words above, including eccentric and reclusive. Where appropriate, those are fine words too. But sadly it is all too common that when a mathematician fits one of these stereotypes that the story is considered to have legs on that basis alone, and then it is played up way too much. So it distorts the picture of who they are. That is what I object to.


  6. Pingback: A Short Cut to Mushrooms at Asymptotia

  7. robert says:

    Perelman and the Clay Prize actually made it onto page three of the Sun (remember the Sun?), where some comparison was made between the mathmo’s facility with figures and the figure of the lovely lass de jour.

  8. Clifford says:

    No way! My goodness…