A gripping and tragic tale that sheds rare light on the unique burden of genius

In 2006, an eccentric Russian mathematician named Grigori Perelman solved the Poincare Conjecture, an extremely complex topological problem that had eluded the best minds for over a century. A prize of one million dollars was offered to anyone who could unravel it, but Perelman declined the winnings, and in doing so inspired journalist Masha Gessen to tell his story. Drawing on interviews with Perelman's teachers, classmates, coaches, teammates, and colleagues in Russia and the United States--and informed by her own background as a math whiz raised in Russia--Gessen uncovered a mind of unrivaled computational power, one that enabled Perelman to pursue mathematical concepts to their logical (sometimes distant) end. But she also discovered that this very strength turned out to be Perelman's undoing and the reason for his withdrawal, first from the world of mathematics and then, increasingly, from the world in general.

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## Comment

Add a CommentTechnical errors in common mathematics and common English from a writer who claims an early love for mathematics, and who is professionally literate in two difficult languages (Russian and English) leave the book suspect. Masha Gressen achieved fame for her success as a journalist. Her specialty is the politics of gender. A strong advocate in Russia for gay rights, she fled (back) to the United States shortly after a personal meeting with Vladimir Putin. That only makes it harder to understand how she could have put her name on such a weak work as this book.

Page 143: "Think about a simple function of the sort you studied in high school. Say, 1/x. A graph of this function would look like a smooth line until it got to the point where x=0. Then things would get crazy because you cannot divide by zero. The line of your graph would suddenly soar toward eternity. This is called a singularity."

First, while colloquial writing is fine for common communication, the expression 1/x is not a function. The proper statement - and it is a statement - is of the form f(x) = 1/x or y = 1/x.

Furthermore, the line would still be "smooth" i.e., continuous all along its path. It would not "suddenly" soar; and you could change the apparent "soar" just by changing the scale of the graph. And, in any case, while half of the lines would rise up or down - and down is diving not soaring - the other halves would creep ever closer to the horizontal positive or negative. Finally, the distinction between eternity and infinity might matter most only to philosophers and theologians, but the difference exists nonetheless.

I found glowing reviews for this book from the New York Times, the American Mathematical Society, and the Mathematical Association of America.

A wonderful book about the Soviet and Russian education system in general and the unique mathemetical genius that it produced. Hardly anyone is a Grigory Perelman, but any honest independent minded researcher who has had to deal with institutional bureaucracies will read it with a certain sense of déja vu.

There is a lot of interesting information about Russia and mathematics, but the book tends to stretch small uninteresting and inconsequential items out into infinite detail to fill up space; to create more pages basically.

It can be a tedious read in places because of this, but easy to skip over such places without missing anything.