MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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Perelman’s Refusal: A Novel (2021)
Philippe Zaouati
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This unusual sounding book, which is to be released in May 2021, apparently presents a fictionalized account of the meeting between Grigori Perelman and the president of the International Mathematical Union. We know that such a meeting took place and that Perelman still refused to accept the Fields Medal, but this book apparently presents the author's own ideas of what was actually said. According to the description of the book posted at the AMS Bookstore:

(quoted from Perelman’s Refusal: A Novel )

We are immersed in the tormented mind of a person who prefers the simple and secluded life to the prestige of his discoveries. We already know the final outcome of the story, Perelman's perpetual refusal to be glorified by the public, and yet there is still much to learn from this character of astonishing complexity.

Most people who are interested in mathematics probably know the story. The Poincaré Conjecture was one of the most famous open problems in mathematics, a question about geometry which conjectured that the analogue of a familiar fact about ordinary spheres was also true for their higher dimensional analogues. Though the claim seemed reasonable, for a long time nobody was able to prove it was true and hence we had to consider the possibility that it was not. It was therefore a big deal when the Russian mathematician Perelman found a proof that the conjecture was indeed true. For his contributions, Perelman was to be awarded the prestigious Fields Medal...but for his own personal reasons Perelman refused to accept the coveted prize. Even after IMU president John Ball visited him in Russia to persuade him to attend the International Congress of Mathematicians in Madrid in 2006 where the prize would be awarded, Perelman declined the honor.

At the time that I am writing this, I have not yet seen this book. I hope that when I do finally read it I will be able to write something more positive about it. For now, all I can say is that I have some apprehensions about it.

On the one hand, it seems rather strange to be writing a fictional account of such a recent event and about people who are still alive.

Moreover, it bothers me quite a bit that Perelman's personality and his "torment" are the focus of so much attention rather than the mathematics. One of the things that I have learned from my hobby of reviewing "mathematical fiction" is that people seem to love the idea that mathematicians have mental disorders and neuroses. Mathematician characters are so frequently portrayed as paranoid, schizophrenic, demented, absent-minded, anti-social, evil, etc. I am quite skeptical that this stereotype is justified. (The use of a small number of examples like John Nash Jr., Gödel and now Perelman as evidence suggests to me that there is not actually any statistical evidence to back it up.) Moreover, regardless of whether there is any correlation between such mental disorders and mathematical interest/ability, I believe the focus on that aspect in both mathematical fiction and popular mathematics is harmful to the discipline. In particular, I think it discourages young people from studying or pursuing careers in mathematics.

Update: I still haven't read the entire book, but I did read the free sample posted at the AMS Bookstore. It surprises and disappoints me to see that they didn't actually get the math right:

(quoted from Perelman’s Refusal: A Novel )

As though to convince himself of its veracity, he read the sentence from the front of the page over again. “A topological sphere is the only compact three-dimensional space without boundaries.” Such is the formulation of the Poincaré Conjecture. It certainly seemed reasonable. Poincaré wasn’t likely to have been wrong. Why shouldn’t something that was true for a two-dimensional surface be true in dimension three as well?

Contrary to what the quote suggests, the statement in bold is not the Poincaré conjecture. In fact, it is clearly false because in any dimension a torus is a compact manifold without boundary which is not topologically a sphere. The statement would need to put some conditions on the fundamental group or the ability to contract loops or something like that in order to be a statement of the Poincaré conjecture.

Of course, it may still be a wonderful novel from a literary standpoint. But, I would have thought that the AMS could get the mathematical statements correct, at least.

More information about this work can be found at .
(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)

Works Similar to Perelman’s Refusal: A Novel
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar / Akiva Goldsman
  2. The Cambridge Quintet by John L. Casti
  3. Über die Schrift hinaus by Ulla Berkéwicz
  4. Perelman's Song by Tina Chang
  5. A Universe of Sufficient Size by Miriam Sved
  6. The Mathematician's Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer
  7. La formule de Stokes, roman by Michèle Audin
  8. The Goddess of Small Victories [La déesse des petites victoire] by Yannick Grannec
  9. The Ishango Bone by Paul Hastings Wilson
  10. Continuums by Robert Carr
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Categories:
GenreHistorical Fiction,
MotifAnti-social Mathematicians, Proving Theorems, Real Mathematicians,
TopicGeometry/Topology/Trigonometry, Real Mathematics,
MediumNovels,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)