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Politics of science

The New Yorker has an interesting article on what is happening around Grigory Perelman‘s nore or less confirmed proof of the Poincaré conjecture.

Perelman posted his proof in a rather condensed and non-detailed form to an Internet archive for pre-publication papers. People have been going through the proof ever since, and a consensus seems to be forming that the proof is correct. However, groups of mathematicians have been provinding missing details and claiming to improve on Perelman, maybe even provide something that was missinng from his proof. This politicking or greed over the fame of having solved the Poincaré seems to be one of the reasons that Perelman has withdrawn from the mathemathics community. He does not want to take part in the politics, so he opts out. There is certainly something to be said for that kind of purism. On the other hand, when did letting somebody else handle the politics stop being a political act…

The article also shows nicely how “collective” Perelman’s proof is, even though he is often presented as a “hermit genius”, working alone. First, he did spend quite a lot of time in many important universities doing top level mathematics before retreating to ponder on the proof. Second, he himself is quite open about being a disciple to Hamilton. Third, he was given the chance to start early on mathmatics by his father who gave him brain-teasers to work out. Amazingly, the article passes without further comment the fact that Perelman’s mother is a mathematics teacher!

A third interesting thing is the fact that Perelman published his work only on the Internet. One of the conditions for collecting a million dollar prize on the proof is that the result be published in a peer-reviewed journal. Now the people giving out the prize are thinking of relaxing the demand, because it is quite clear that Perelman’s proof has been chacked most rigorously by peers even though it has not been submitted to a journal. The example set by the mathematics community could pave the way for the future of publications also in other fields.

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