Friday, July 2, 2010

Wise or Foolish?

I read this in the New York Times:

Three months ago, a famously impoverished Russian mathematician named Grigori Perelman was awarded the prestigious $1 million Clay Mathematics Institute Millennium Prize for his groundbreaking work -- having solved a problem of three-dimensional geometry that had resisted scores of brilliant mathematicians since 1904.

Thursday, the institute announced that Perelman, known equally for his brilliance and his eccentricities, formally and finally turned down the award and the money. He didn't deserve it, he told a Russian news service, because he was following a mathematical path set by another.

The president of the Clay Institute, James Carlson, said that Perelman was a mathematician of "extraordinary power and creativity" and that it was he alone who solved the intractable Poincaré's conjecture. "All mathematicians follow the work of others, but only a handful make breakthroughs of this magnitude," Carlson said.

I'm awed by this man's integrity, in part because I would be hard put to refuse $1 million.

What do you think? Foolish or wise?

And yet, if more people behaved this way in disdaining money ... what a wonderful world it would be. Or would it? Does it expose as a lie that the only incentive for people to achieve is material? Or is this guy to be dismissed as an eccentric?


Bill Samuel said...

It's not the first prize he's turned down. He is eccentric, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. He seems himself as part of a community which is making progress in mathematics and questions the singling out of a particular member of the community.

What a refreshing departure from the highly individualistic current of this era.

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

In 1964, Jean Paul Satre refused the Noble Prize for Literature, saying he was afraid it would turn him into an institution. In 1973, Le Duc Tho, North Vietnamese negotiator during the Paris Peace talks, turned down the Nobel Peace Prize he had been awarded jointly with Henry Kissinger, because he said there was no peace in Vietnam.

Oriental tradition records a number of cases of great figures refusing prestigious appointments, or awards of money, from one emperor or another, as recognition of their achievements. My favorite involves the Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu, who was fishing in a stream when a courtier arrived to tell him that he had been awarded a high position at the imperial court. “Under this bridge,” said Chuang Tzu, “there is an ancient catfish that has lived for hundreds of years and grown to an enormous size. Do you suppose he would rather be caught, cooked, and served on a silver platter at the Emperor’s banquet, all dressed out with garnishes, or do you think he would rather stay here wagging his tail in the mud?” “He would rather wag his tail in the mud,” said the courtier. “Begone!” said Chuang Tzu: “I, too, would rather wag my tail in the mud!”

ef said...

Marshall - that is a great story!

I think I would have trouble turning down the prize, but not the prestige. I suppose I'm not sure what is involved with accepting such a prize, but I tend to think that if anyone offered me a million dollars I would take it and try to do good with it. I struggle with what integrity means in our world. I think I see it as an empty gesture to refuse the money. Who keeps it then? where does it go? perhaps better to take it and share it (perhaps give all of it away, ever cent) to those who's footsteps he's following in, or their families, or scholarships for poor but promising math students, or funding for institutions that do work (mathematical or not) that seems worthy.

In the larger picture (in my mind) integrity about money is near impossible to come by. Money itself may be fundamentally incompatible with integrity, I'm not sure.

I can see that, say, stealing is wrong, and yet if I had the opportunity to steal every cent of Wal-Mart's wealth and use it to house people, feed people, build sustainable, nurturing institutions, I would do it in a second, AND, I believe a VERY good case could be made that that would be acting with more integrity than just sitting by and following the laws.

Diane said...

AMAZING COMMENTS and I will get back to this ... right now I am melting in the heat ...

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