or be distracted. Other than music and table tennis, Perelman’s entire being was dedicated to mathematics. While recounting Perelman’s obsession, Gessen also provides a fascinating account of Soviet mathematics during the twentieth century, a subject that has rarely been covered in popular science writing. For decades, the Soviets worked in complete isolation, without access to journals and unable to attend international conferences. This meant that the same ideas were often developed twice, independently in the East and the West. Hence, several mathematical concepts are now labelled with double-bar relled names, such as the Chaitin–Kolmogorov complexities or the Cook–Levin theorem.
Although mathematics prospered under communism, the great mathematicians who had earned their reputations before the Revolution were often persecuted. Dimitri Egorov, for instance, was arrested in 1930 and died in exile the following year after a hunger strike. The battle between logical maths and illogical idealism continued with Egorov’s first student, Nikolai Luzin, who was denounced after expressing his view on the latest mathematical breakthrough:
was describing his attempt to solve one of the great problems in mathematics, known as the Poincaré Conjecture. Two more papers were promised, and it appeared that the solitary Russian was claiming a solution to this century-old problem.
The Poincaré Conjecture asks questions about the nature of spheres in higher dimensions. I could go on, but Gessen struggles to explain the conjecture in a chapter, so I am going to shy away from trying to explain it in a paragraph.
Perelman: reluctant celebrity
Although the Poincaré Conjecture is a mind-bending problem, it is easy to appreciate its significance in the world of mathematics, because it was included as one of the Millennium Prize Problems. The philanthropist Landon T Clay had decided to offer seven prizes of $1 million each for the solution to seven great problems of mathematics. So it was not long before news began to leak that Perelman might be the first to claim a Clay prize. This is when Perelman’s solitary pilgrimage towards a proof turned him, in his mind, into a freak show.
It seems the set of natural numbers is not an absolutely objective formation. It seems it is a function of the mind of the mathematician who happens to be speaking of a set of natural numbers at the given moment. It seems there are, among the problems of arithmetic, those that absolutely cannot be solved. Such thoughts were at odds with Soviet ideology.
Perelman was more fortunate. Just as he reached mathematical maturity, the Soviet Union began to crumble, censorship fell away and travel opportunities opened up. He spent time in America, attended conferences and had access to all the journals. He could easily have established himself in one of the top-ranking American universities, but in 1995 he returned to Russia and resumed his life as a hermit.
The stor y broke in the New York Times, and the tabloids followed. Disputes about the proof were outlined in a major feature in the New Yorker. Worst of all, lucrative job offers and the spectre of a $1 million prize made Perelman feel like a nerd celebrity rather than a mathematical hero. The St Petersburg city council considered stationing guards outside his apartment block to deter the constant stream of photographers and journalists. Over the course of two years, a cohort of mathematicians checked the proof and gave it their formal blessing. Having officially solved a Clay problem, Perelman was offered the $1 million prize, but he turned it down. He was also offered a Fields Medal, the equivalent of a Nobel Prize in maths, but he turned that down as well. Moreover, since proving the Poincaré Conjecture, Perelman has removed himself from the mathematical community. In fact, it seems
Seven years later, comp l e t e l y out of the blue, Perelman sent out an email to a dozen American mathematicians that pointed to a preliminary paper he had just published online. To the rest of the world, including most of the mathematical community, the paper would have seemed arcane and deeply technical, but the twelve recipients immediately saw that Perelman
MA in biography Consistently rated ‘excellent’ by external examiners and inspectors The course is taught by Jane Ridley and will be based in London from
October 2010. Available full-time (12 months) or part-time,
by research or as a taught MA. Start October or January. For more information visit our site www.buckingham.ac.uk/london/biography or email email@example.com he has turned his back on the rest of the world, which obviously includes journalists.
This f inal f act makes Masha Gessen’s book remarkable, because she has succeeded in recounting Perelman’s story and providing an insight into his character without ever meeting him, speaking to him on the phone or exchanging emails. To order this book for £11.99, see LR bookshop on page 12
LITERARY REVIEW March 2011
The Earth Moved for Him THE OMNIPOTENT MAGICIAN: LANCELOT
‘CAPABILITY’ BROWN, 1716–1783
By Jane Brown (Chatto & Windus 384pp £20)
‘CAPABILITY’ BROWN, THE most famous of all eighteenthcentury landscape designers – and the father of the landscape garden – never wrote a manual or recorded his musings for posterity. In fact, were it not for an illuminating conversation with Hannah More in 1782, the year before he died, critics might have got away with the accusation that he possessed nothing but a good eye for effect.
Stowe’s famous lake and the picturesque garden tour replete with Palladian bridge, Elysian Fields, and Temple of Ancient Virtues. In accordance with their vision, particularly Kent’s, the gardens at Stowe became park-like places for walking and discovering rather than simply looking. Brown, who became head gardener in 1741, was so well versed in Kent’s style that his major contribution to Stowe – the Grecian Valley – moves effortlessly out from the Elysian Fields without any stark interruption or change of mood, belying the massive quantities of earth that were shifted to create it.
Even as late as 1751, three years after Kent’s death when Brown had already struck out on his own, he was still labouring under the shadow of his mentor. The diarist Horace Walpole visited Warwick Castle, where Brown had accepted a commission from Lord Brooke, and noted somewhat dismissively that ‘it is well laid out by one Brown who has set up on a few ideas of Kent and Mr Southcote’. Two years later, however, Brown had become so successful that he was able to keep an account at Drummonds Bank.
Fortunately for Brown’s reputation, More recorded the encounter. The two were at Hampton Court Palace when Brown directed her attention to the landscape:
Par t of the secret to Brown’s success can be divined from his nickname. It was allegedly given to him because of the way he would march a l l over a p roper t y be f o re i n f o r ming t he owners whether it possessed the right capabilit ies for his attentions. When Brown assessed a landscape he was looking for water as much as he was looking for contours, views and woodland. His patrons were
‘Now there’, said he, pointing his finger, ‘I make a comma, and t here ’ , pointing t o another spot, ‘where a more decided turn is p roper, I make a colon; at another part, where an interruption is desirable to break the view, a parenthesis; now a full stop, and then I begin another subject.’ Thus Brown revealed that his ‘natural’ designs were the epitome of the expert grammarian’s art.
The Grecian Valley, Stowe, c 1750
Another common misperception about Brown was that he emerged fully formed in the mid-eighteenth century, his ideas entirely sui generis and at odds with every other landscape architect in the country. Rather more prosaically, Brown actually served a long apprenticeship under William Kent at Stowe. It was Kent who trained and schooled him in the new style of picturesque gardens that were beginning to replace the formal parterres, avenues, allées and walled gardens of the Baroque era.
Kent and his predecessor Charles Br idgeman were responsible for enamoured with the new poetical depictions of nature as gentle and pastoral. In David Hume’s words, ‘the eye is pleased with the prospect of cornfields and loaded vineyards, horses grazing and flocks pasturing; but flies the view of briars and brambles, affording shelter to wolves and serpents’.
The ‘prospects’ provided by Brown included serpentine lakes, gently undulating lawns, strategically planted clumps of trees that led the eye to rolling views, and simple canvasses of ‘natural’ colours. At Blenheim
Palace, which is considered to be Brown’s magnum opus, he erased Henry Wise’s scheme and constructed a dam to hold back the River Glyme. This created a 45 hectare lake that was ornamented by Vanbrugh’s Grand Br idge as
LITERARY REVIEW March 2011