One of the authors is Sylvia Nasar, who wrote A Beautiful Mind. The writers actually went to St. Petersberg to track down the elusive genius, and have reconstructed the history behind his decade of work to produce the proof.
...In 1982, the year that Shing-Tung Yau won a Fields Medal, Perelman earned a perfect score and the gold medal at the International Mathematical Olympiad, in Budapest.
...In 1993, he began a two-year fellowship at Berkeley. While he was there, Hamilton gave several talks on campus, and in one he mentioned that he was working on the Poincaré. Hamilton’s Ricci-flow strategy was extremely technical and tricky to execute. After one of his talks at Berkeley, he told Perelman about his biggest obstacle. As a space is smoothed under the Ricci flow, some regions deform into what mathematicians refer to as “singularities.” Some regions, called “necks,” become attenuated areas of infinite density. More troubling to Hamilton was a kind of singularity he called the “cigar.” If cigars formed, Hamilton worried, it might be impossible to achieve uniform geometry. Perelman realized that a paper he had written on Alexandrov spaces might help Hamilton prove Thurston’s conjecture—and the Poincaré—once Hamilton solved the cigar problem. “At some point, I asked Hamilton if he knew a certain collapsing result that I had proved but not published—which turned out to be very useful,” Perelman said. “Later, I realized that he didn’t understand what I was talking about.” Dan Stroock, of M.I.T., said, “Perelman may have learned stuff from Yau and Hamilton, but, at the time, they were not learning from him.”
By the end of his first year at Berkeley, Perelman had written several strikingly original papers. He was asked to give a lecture at the 1994 I.M.U. congress, in Zurich, and invited to apply for jobs at Stanford, Princeton, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the University of Tel Aviv. Like Yau, Perelman was a formidable problem solver. Instead of spending years constructing an intricate theoretical framework, or defining new areas of research, he focussed on obtaining particular results. According to Mikhail Gromov, a renowned Russian geometer who has collaborated with Perelman, he had been trying to overcome a technical difficulty relating to Alexandrov spaces and had apparently been stumped. “He couldn’t do it,” Gromov said. “It was hopeless.”
Perelman told us that he liked to work on several problems at once. At Berkeley, however, he found himself returning again and again to Hamilton’s Ricci-flow equation and the problem that Hamilton thought he could solve with it. Some of Perelman’s friends noticed that he was becoming more and more ascetic. Visitors from St. Petersburg who stayed in his apartment were struck by how sparsely furnished it was. Others worried that he seemed to want to reduce life to a set of rigid axioms. When a member of a hiring committee at Stanford asked him for a C.V. to include with requests for letters of recommendation, Perelman balked. “If they know my work, they don’t need my C.V.,” he said. “If they need my C.V., they don’t know my work.”
...Perelman had posted a thirty-nine-page paper entitled “The Entropy Formula for the Ricci Flow and Its Geometric Applications,” on arXiv.org, a Web site used by mathematicians to post preprints—articles awaiting publication in refereed journals. He then e-mailed an abstract of his paper to a dozen mathematicians in the United States—including Hamilton, Tian, and Yau—none of whom had heard from him for years. In the abstract, he explained that he had written “a sketch of an eclectic proof” of the geometrization conjecture.
Perelman had not mentioned the proof or shown it to anyone. “I didn’t have any friends with whom I could discuss this,” he said in St. Petersburg. “I didn’t want to discuss my work with someone I didn’t trust.” Andrew Wiles had also kept the fact that he was working on Fermat’s last theorem a secret, but he had had a colleague vet the proof before making it public. Perelman, by casually posting a proof on the Internet of one of the most famous problems in mathematics, was not just flouting academic convention but taking a considerable risk. If the proof was flawed, he would be publicly humiliated, and there would be no way to prevent another mathematician from fixing any errors and claiming victory. But Perelman said he was not particularly concerned. “My reasoning was: if I made an error and someone used my work to construct a correct proof I would be pleased,” he said. “I never set out to be the sole solver of the Poincaré.”
Gang Tian was in his office at M.I.T. when he received Perelman’s e-mail. He and Perelman had been friendly in 1992, when they were both at N.Y.U. and had attended the same weekly math seminar in Princeton. “I immediately realized its importance,” Tian said of Perelman’s paper. Tian began to read the paper and discuss it with colleagues, who were equally enthusiastic.
On November 19th, Vitali Kapovitch, a geometer, sent Perelman an e-mail:
Hi Grisha, Sorry to bother you but a lot of people are asking me about your preprint “The entropy formula for the Ricci . . .” Do I understand it correctly that while you cannot yet do all the steps in the Hamilton program you can do enough so that using some collapsing results you can prove geometrization? Vitali.
Perelman’s response, the next day, was terse: “That’s correct. Grisha.”
...Perelman repeatedly said that he had retired from the mathematics community and no longer considered himself a professional mathematician. ... “It is not people who break ethical standards who are regarded as aliens,” he said. “It is people like me who are isolated.” We asked him whether he had read Cao and Zhu’s paper. “It is not clear to me what new contribution did they make,” he said. “Apparently, Zhu did not quite understand the argument and reworked it.” As for Yau, Perelman said, “I can’t say I’m outraged. Other people do worse. Of course, there are many mathematicians who are more or less honest. But almost all of them are conformists. They are more or less honest, but they tolerate those who are not honest.”
The prospect of being awarded a Fields Medal had forced him to make a complete break with his profession. “As long as I was not conspicuous, I had a choice,” Perelman explained. “Either to make some ugly thing”—a fuss about the math community’s lack of integrity—“or, if I didn’t do this kind of thing, to be treated as a pet. Now, when I become a very conspicuous person, I cannot stay a pet and say nothing. That is why I had to quit.” We asked Perelman whether, by refusing the Fields and withdrawing from his profession, he was eliminating any possibility of influencing the discipline. “I am not a politician!” he replied, angrily. Perelman would not say whether his objection to awards extended to the Clay Institute’s million-dollar prize. “I’m not going to decide whether to accept the prize until it is offered,” he said.
Mikhail Gromov, the Russian geometer, said that he understood Perelman’s logic: “To do great work, you have to have a pure mind. You can think only about the mathematics. Everything else is human weakness. Accepting prizes is showing weakness.” Others might view Perelman’s refusal to accept a Fields as arrogant, Gromov said, but his principles are admirable. “The ideal scientist does science and cares about nothing else,” he said. “He wants to live this ideal. Now, I don’t think he really lives on this ideal plane. But he wants to.”