Saturday, August 26, 2006

The drama of a mathematical proof

An article in this week’s New Yorker describes the human drama behind a proof of the Poincare conjecture, one of the seven Millennium Problems. The article is unsparing of several mathematicians of Chinese origin.

Notes added on 27 August.


At 8/27/2006 9:20 AM, Blogger Ting Zhu said...

One of the authors of the article, Sylvia Nasar, was also the author of "A Beautiful Mind: A Biography of John Forbes Nash", which was adpated to the Oscar winning movie.

The following comments are by Michael Anderson, a geometer at Stony Brook whom Sylia had interviewed for writing this article.

Many of you have probably seen the New Yorker article by Sylvia Nasar and David Gruber on Perelman and the Poincare conjecture.

In many respects, its very interesting and a pleasure to read. However, it contains a number of inaccuracies and downright errors.

I spent several hours talking with Sylvia Nasar trying to dissuade her from incorporating the Tian-Yau fights into the article, since it was completely irrelevant and I didn't see the point of dragging readers through the mud.

Obviously I was not successful.

The quote attributed to me on Yau is completely inaccurate and distorted from some remarks I made to her in a quite different context; I made it explicit to her that the remarks I was making in that context were purely speculative and had no basis in fact. I did not give her my permission to quote me on this, even with the qualification of speculation.

There are other inaccuracies about Stony Brook. One for instance is the implication that Tian at MIT was the first to invite Perelman to the US to give talks. This is of course false - we at Stony Brook were the first to do so. I stressed in my talks with her the role Stony Brook played, yet she focusses on the (single) talk Grisha gave at Princeton, listing a collection of eminent mathematicians, none of whom is a geometer/topologist.

I was not given an opportunity to set the record straight with the New Yorker before publication; this was partly because I was travelling in Europe at the time this happened, and there was a rush to publish; the publication date is the same as the announcement date of the Fields Medals I think. I was not sent an advance copy of the article for checking. I spoke with Sylvia on the phone this morning, to no avail. I've also had some email correspondence with Yau on the matter over the last day. I apologized to him and expressed my anger and frustration about what was done, confirming to him the quote attributed to me is false and baseless. (The email to Yau is now already posted on a Chinese blog site!).

I've learned my lesson on dealing with the media the hard and sour way and am still considering what path to pursue to try to rectify the situation, to the extent still possible.



At 8/29/2006 11:43 AM, Blogger Rui Huang said...

Besides the disturbing drama (especially for Chinese scholars), does this proved conjecture have any implication for mechanics? For example, deformation of two-dimensional surfaces such as thin membranes and three-dimensional bodies. Some of us learned a little on single and manifold geometry in a context of mechanics. Any comments on this?


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