Subtracted From Society

Brett Forrest traveled to Russia in search of a reclusive, eccentric genius – Grigori Perelman – who solved the Poincaré Conjecture, a theorem that had frustrated mathematicians for nearly a century. Before describing their meeting, including the three-day stakeout that led up to it, Forrest catalogued Perelman's strange life:

I liked his style. The more he did, the more I liked. In 2006 Perelman became the first person to turn down the Fields Medal, the top award in mathematics (there is no Nobel Prize in math). He has declined professorships at Princeton, Berkeley and Columbia. In 2010, when the Clay Mathematics Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts awarded him a $1 million prize for proving the Poincaré conjecture, Perelman refused it. Unemployed these past seven years, he lives with his mother in a former communal apartment in St. Petersburg, the two subsisting on her monthly pension of $160. “I have all that I need,” Perelman has told his concerned Russian math colleagues, with whom he has severed all but the most perfunctory telephone relations.

Perelman last gave an interview six years ago, shortly after a collective of Ph.D.s finished a three-year confirmation of his proof. Since then, the domestic and international press have harassed him into reclusion. Perelman has spurned all media requests, muttering tersely through his apartment door against a wave of journalists. “I don’t want to be on display like an animal in a zoo,” he told one reporter. “My activity and my persona have no interest for society.” When one journalist reached him by phone, Perelman told him, “You are disturbing me. I am picking mushrooms.”