Sunday, August 27, 2006

The World of Ideas

Despite the fact that the medium is definitely not the message here, a quote by Marshall McLuhan seems apt for the ascetic brilliance of Grigori Perelman:

"Only puny secrets need protection. Big discoveries are protected by public incredulity."

A Week in Review article in the New York Times eloquently describes how Perelman completely rejects celebrity, fame, and wealth for the Platonic ideal of pure knowledge.
The Math Was Complex, the Intentions, Strikingly Simple
. . .

Last week, a reclusive Russian topologist named Grigory Perelman seemed to be playing to type, or stereotype, when he refused to accept the highest honor in mathematics, the Fields Medal, for work pointing toward the solution of Poincaré’s conjecture, a longstanding hypothesis involving the deep structure of three-dimensional objects. He left open the possibility that he would also spurn a $1 million prize from the Clay Mathematics Institute in Cambridge, Mass.

... It was not so much a medal that he was rejecting but the idea that in the search for nature’s secrets the discoverer is more important than the discovery.

"I do not think anything that I say can be of the slightest public interest," Perelman said. ... "I know that self-promotion happens a lot and if people want to do that, good luck to them, but I do not regard it as a positive thing."
. . .

...What matters are the ideas, not the brains in which they alight. Posted without fear of thievery on the Internet beginning in 2002, his proof, consisting of three dense papers, gives glimpses of a world of pure thought that few will ever know.
. . .

It has taken nearly four years for Dr. Perelman’s colleagues to unpack the implications of his 68-page exposition, which is so oblique that it doesn’t actually mention the conjecture. The Clay Institute Web site carries links to three papers by others — 992 pages in total — either explicating the proof or trying to absorb it as a detail of their own.

Contrast this with a news item about the most powerful nitwit in the world, who reportedly spent his summer vacation (back at the ranch) reading The Stranger by Albert Camus.

Guess his favorite bit was the part about killing an Arab??

As John Dickerson put it in Slate (see also John Stewart):
...Camus' story line is ripe for geopolitical literary misinterpretation. The main character, Meursault, spends much of his life as the young George Bush did, engaging in escapades that demonstrate little drive or motivation. On a visit to the beach with friends, he gets into a fight with some Arabs. Later, he finds one of the Arabs and without much further provocation shoots him repeatedly. During the circus-trial that follows, and the long hours Meursault spends in jail, he is remorseless and unable to engage in contemplation. On the day of his execution, he has a flickering thought that he might have lived another life. But mostly he's excited about the day and hopes that everyone will cheer for his death.
But we live in a world without justice...

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At August 28, 2006 4:25 PM, Blogger Steve said...

make sure to check out last weeks new yorker article about this.. really good stuff!

At August 28, 2006 6:03 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

You mean the one about the summer reading list, READ IT AND WEEP?

"By definition, a government has no conscience. Sometimes it has a policy, but nothing more."
--Albert Camus


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