Why did the mathematician who solved the first Millennium Prize problem— Poincaré’s conjecture that all 3-manifolds are ultimately equivalent to spheres—decline a million dollars and worldwide fame? (Well, he still got the fame or else I wouldn’t be talking about him.)
- He has already saved up enough money to live for the rest of his life. (He’s ascetic.)
- He is taking a stand against the egotism and credit-grabbing that apparently characterizes mathematics. (“I discovered it first!” “No, I did!”)
Perelman wants his prize to be shared with a former colleague (Hamilton) without whom he could never have begun his famous proof (part 1, part 2). And at the same time some other mathematicians (Yau, Cao, Zhu) are claiming that his work was incomplete — a sketch, not a proof. They wrote their own version which they say is better, but Perelman deeply believes that they are just trying to steal credit for making minor clarifications to his work which was already complete in the first place.
Perelman is attracted to people who share their ideas in the hope of striving together toward a worthy goal (like proving the Poincaré conjecture). By turning down fame and fortune, he’s putting his money where his mouth is. What’s important is what we accomplished, he’s saying. Not who gets the glory.
Now two more problems out of the seven Millennium Problems — and these are fifty- or hundred-year-old problems — may have been solved. Deodar Deolalikar claims to have proved that P ≠ NP. And Jorma Jormakka says he solved the Navier-Stokes equation. (Apparently, it’s good to have your initials be the same. Note to self.) Update: Some people say both DD and JJ are wrong. Reconsidering name change.