In Praise of Prize-Rejecters

People who’ve won major international prizes are a select group, but even selecter is the group Perelman190_1 of those who have refused them. The latest to is 40-year-old Russian mathematician Dr. Grigory Perelman, who just refused a Field Award for helping to solve a century-old mathematical puzzle called the Poincaré conjecture:

"Dr. Perelman, 40, is known not only for his work on the Poincaré conjecture, among the most heralded unsolved math problems, but also because he has declined previous mathematical prizes and has turned down job offers from Princeton, Stanford and other universities. He has said he wants no part of $1 million that the Clay Mathematics Institute in Cambridge, Mass. has offered for the first published proof of the conjecture."

Sir John M. Ball, president of the International Mathematical Union, traveled to Perelman’s home in St. Petersburg to convince him to accept the prize, but Perelman was "adamant." A previous New York Times profile of Perelman featured former colleagues’ impressions of him. He had long hair and fingernails, they said, and looked like "Rasputin." The only hobby he described was collecting mushrooms in parks near St. Petersburg.

Jean-Paul Sarte refused the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964 with a rather windy declaration about his "independence." Samuel Beckett accepted the prize in 1969, having learned from Sartre’s experience that publicly declining it just draws even more attention. Beckett, however, declined to attend the award ceremony. He wished King Gustav all the best, and had his Paris publisher tell the world that he "had no need either for the notoriety or the money" and was enjoying a swim vacation in Nabeul, Tunisia.

Perelman’s approach is the purest: just decline without statement or explanation. I find this somehow admirable. Happy mushroom-collecting, Dr. Perelman!

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