Monday, April 05, 2010

Book Review - Perfect Rigor

Typically when I head to the bookstore, I don't have a clear picture of what I intend to purchase. I have a mental list of things on my reading list, but it's in no particular order and occasionally, I can find other things that strike my interest. My last trip to Barnes & Nobles was a prime example of this. I'd already decided on a few books from my list when a book entitled Perfect Rigor by Masha Gessen caught my eye.

Flipping the book open to the description, it purported to be about Grigory Perelman, the Russian mathematician who solved the Poincare Conjecture and was thus eligible for the Millenium Prize of $1 million. But he turned it down and went into seculsion. It sounded like an interesting story, so I picked it up.

The story is mostly about Preleman's early life: His mother was a Jewish mathematician, his study with his math coach Rukshin, odd behaviors, oppression in the Soviet regime, graduate school, and eventual disillusionment with the mathematical community for not giving what the author suggested he thought was his due credit. However, since Perelman has gone into seclusion, the book had the be written entirely without interviewing him. Thus, it is told mainly from interviews with friends and colleagues.

I can't tell whether it's because of this (or perhaps the author's writing style or the difficultly I have with remembering names), but the majority of the book seems to be painfully disjointed. Although it is told chronologically, there seems to be little coherence and details are included with little to no justification for doing so. I suppose the idea was to build up a reason for all of Perelman's eccentricities, but exactly how things connect is so weakly fleshed out that I'm still not certain that all of it does.

The majority of the book is devoted to Perelman's childhood which is quite boring. Only in the last few chapters do we actually find Perelman working on the problem and responding to it. While I understand build up is important, it felt too tedious for too long with a sadly abbreviated climax.

Furthermore, the math is almost non-existent in the book. There's a few vague analogies here and there, but in general, it's completely absent. This seemed very odd for such a book, to not even attempt to explain how Perelman solved such a monumental problem aside from saying something to the effect of "he found a way around a few blocks someone else had come up against."

Overall, this book was a large disappointment.


taxattorney25 said...

The book is really not about mathematics, but about mathematicians and their culture, especially that of Russian mathematicians. Only one chapter deals with the mathematical content of the Poincare Conjecture, with the bulk of the book about Perelman and his career. wage garnishment

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