… or Mathematics.
Just finished reading this today:
by SYLVIA NASAR AND DAVID GRUBER
A legendary problem and the battle over who solved it.
Issue of 2006-08-28
The story in summary sounds so trite. A hundred years old math problem was finally proved, TWICE, within three years. On November 2002, it was proved by an eccentric Russian mathematician Grigory Perelman, who lived a seclude life and refused to accept the famed Fields Metal that the committee wanted to award him. One year after Perelman posted his proof of the problem on the Internet in three installments, it was again re-proved by a group of Chinese mathematicians led by the famous once-Fields-Metal-winner Shing-Tung Yau, who really really wants a Fields Metal for it.
The math problem in question is the PoincarÃ© conjecture, which is “about the characteristics of three-dimensional spheres, which, because it has important implications for mathematics and cosmology and because it has eluded all attempts at solution, is regarded by mathematicians as a holy grail.”
The article traced both mathematician’s professional life and their vastly different attitudes toward mathematics.
Perelman is shy and is living a quiet life as an professor in St. Petersburg, relatively unknown before he posted his proof of PoincarÃ©. He loves long walks around St. Petersburg and he loves opera. He refuses to accept the Fields Medal because
â€œIt was completely irrelevant for me,â€ he said. â€œEverybody understood that if the proof is correct then no other recognition is needed.â€
Perelman loves Math. Nothing else matters.
Shing-Tung Yau, on the other hand, loves something else. Yau has led a distinguished career. Won a Fields Medal at thirty-two, became the first Chinese to won a Fields. He is currently “a professor of mathematics at Harvard and the director of mathematics institutes in Beijing and Hong Kong.” He mingles with high officials in China such as the now retired Chairman Jiang Ze Min. All these are not enough. Yau’s goal is to become “the next famous Chinese mathematician” after Shiing-Shen Chern steps down.
*Chern was the author of a famous theorem combining topology and geometry. He spent most of his career in the United States, at Berkeley. He made frequent visits to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and, later, China, where he was a revered symbol of Chinese intellectual achievement, to promote the study of math and science.
Sounds like Yau has determined their proof of PoincarÃ© (although 2 years later than Perelman’s) will be that magic step stone.
Perelman does it for the love of math.
Yau does it for the love of recognition.
When i was swallowed by the heat of FIFA world cup, i had a moment of realization–that the best footballers play for the love of football. The most amazing match was usually one where the team expressed themselves best through this game, like music or art. Right then and there i thought, is that why Chinese football sucks so much? Because there is rarely any Chinese athlete plays sports for the love of it or for the freedom of self-expression. They play like soldiers on a battle field. Forced, inprisoned. There is no individuality, no self-expression. There is only competition and rigid discipline. Only in very recent olympic competition, could we see a glimpse of some individuality showing through. To free a nation’s mind will take a long long time.
Now the nation is swiped under the craze to gain fame and money.
At the end of the New Yorker article,
Mikhail Gromov, the Russian geometer, said that he understood Perelmanâ€™s logic: â€œTo do great work, you have to have a pure mind. You can think only about the mathematics. Everything else is human weakness. Accepting prizes is showing weakness.â€ Others might view Perelmanâ€™s refusal to accept a Fields as arrogant, Gromov said, but his principles are admirable. â€œThe ideal scientist does science and cares about nothing else,â€ he said. â€œHe wants to live this ideal. Now, I donâ€™t think he really lives on this ideal plane. But he wants to.â€
Regardless how many destruction western civilization has imposed on the world, the fact that idealistic and pure passion was valued so highly till this day proves its power.
I wish i could say the same about Chinese civilization.
Now the question is, do you think the world is becoming more like the west? or more like China?
Okay, i wasn’t been fair. Matthew pointed out to me that in the same article there was a good Chinese mathmatician, too. 🙂 And sis said that politics is everywhere.
The fact is that China wasn’t like this before. The traditional intellectual used to care a lot about form and purity. Fighting for fame and recognition used to be considered very bad form for an intellectual. But now, the entire nation is taken over by greed. I missed the lost tradition. And i am kept on reminded of that saying “The death of civilizations makes me tremble for the fate of our own, which has given so much less to posterity. – Irfan Orga”
Update (9/5/2006):More amusing development regarding this article and the main characters:
- Three Mathematicians (Dan Stroock, Michael Anderson, Joe Kohn) quoted in the New Yorker article supposedly either published their clarification/apology on the net or emailed them to Yau. All i could find is this version with Chinese translation mingled with original text. Not sure where are the sources in English.
- Yau himself is experiencing a huge wave of criticism from all sides right now, because he openly criticized one of the most prestige university in China: Beijing University. He claimed that the University has hired many “fake” professors from over-seas universities to boaster its image and paying them large sum of money to keep it up. Needless to say, many professors employed by Beijing University has since stood up and fought back. As a result, Yau’s name has become well known in China recently.
- Is Yau employing “no publicity is bad publicity” tactic? or am i worried over nothing — that Chinese traditional culture is still well and alive, not tolerating someone so anti-tradition (not humble enough) like Yau? I’m leaning toward the former.
There is no a wikipedia entry for this whole ordeal: Manifold Destiny (article)