Would I, of my own sound and volition, willfully dedicate my time to reading this book? Probably not. Admittedly, the cover is super cool and features some pretty awe-worthy eyebrows, (thanks Perelman) and the summary makes the whole thing seem like some intense, gripping tale of a life-changing event—which I guess it kinda was—but still. I’m getting ahead of myself, though.
Perfect Rigor, by Masha Gessen, is a story about mathematician Grigori Perelman, and the proving of the Poincaré Conjecture. In 1904, French mathematician Henri Poincaré made a theorem about the characterization of the 3-sphere, which is the hypersphere that bounds the unit ball in four-dimensional space. Basically, it could help explain the shape of the universe. (Cue TARDIS sounds). This conjecture was unable to be proven for almost a century, despite the million-dollar prize offered by a Boston philanthropist. Then in 2002, Perelman posted a series of online eprints, seemingly proving the conjecture in a comparatively short few pages, doing what so many others before him couldn’t. After a team of mathematicians were able to determine that yes, this guy did indeed prove this freaking complex, crazy, whatever theorem, he was awarded the Fields Medal, which is like the math’s world equivalent of the Nobel Prize. He then declined it. Also the million-dollar prize. (Did I mention that earlier, he’d been offered teaching positions at both Stanford and Princeton? And declined those too? And that for awhile he lived off of dried bread and fermented milk? It’s not exactly relevant, but I mean whoa).
Perfect Rigor is Gessen’s exploration of Grigori Perelman, and thoughts as to what kind of a person he had to be in order to be so incredibly brilliant. Must one sacrifice normality and social niceties to do what no one else was able to? Did Perelman’s childhood and education in Russia prepare him uniquely to become the person able to prove the conjecture, or would he have been who he was regardless of environmental conditions? All these questions and more are explored in this book, which simultaneously makes this beast of a guy accessible to ordinary readers such as myself, while proving just how different our brains, lives, and experiences are.
In the first paragraph, I said that ordinarily I would never have read this kind of a book. Math has never been my thing, and I think terms like "hypersphere that bounds the unit ball in four-dimensional space" kind of scared me off. Honestly, if it weren’t for my insane, math-lover of a dad, I would probably never even have heard of this book. But I’m glad I did. The prose flows through a reader’s mind, and Gessen does a good job of making complex concepts accessible to readers, introducing us to the incredible possibilities of the universe and the human mind. I’d recommend this to anyone up for a challenge and a bit of an awe-induced coma—you won’t regret it.
-Keiko, (Dusen)Berry Blogger and member of the River Teen Advisory Board