Per­fect Rig­or: A Genius and the Math­e­mat­i­cal Break­through of the Century

  • Review
September 13, 2011
What is the lan­guage we use to speak to God? Some of us use prayer. Oth­ers song, or music, or art. Some rely on actions to speak for them. Oth­ers sim­ply avoid the con­ver­sa­tion. Both Her­man Wouk and Masha Gessen, using very dif­fer­ent approach­es, sug­gest that the lan­guage in which we com­mu­ni­cate with God might not be Hebrew or Eng­lish, or art, or song, but quite pos­si­bly math­e­mat­ics. Math­e­mat­ics is a lan­guage of sym­bols, vari­ables, and con­cepts, each so well-defined and pure that if we humans want to talk with God, the lan­guage of math might just give us our best chance.

In his nine­ty-fifth year, Her­man­Wouk is still deci­pher­ing his own pro­found con­ver­sa­tion with God.Wouk, aman who dav­ens every day, speaks with God in the lan­guage of the Torah. Yet­Wouk has had a life­long fas­ci­na­tion with­math­e­mat­ics and the sci­ences that com­mu­ni­cate using­math­e­mat­ics. His book is a philo­soph­i­cal stroll through piv­otal sci­en­tif­ic achieve­ments of the 20th cen­tu­ry as well as rec­ol­lec­tions of con­ver­sa­tions shared with some of its most famous physi­cists: Richard Feynman,Murray Gell-Man, Free­man Dyson, and Steven Weinberg.Wouk’s smooth,masterful writ­ing cov­ers weighty ques­tions, such as what is our pur­pose in the world and how do both reli­gion and sci­ence informthat pur­pose, as if they were casu­al chat over a cup of cof­fee. EvenWouk’s title is inspired by a decep­tive­ly sim­ple ques­tion from­Richard Feyn­man, who asked­Wouk if he knew Calculus.Wouk replied he did not. In response Feyn­men advised, You had bet­ter learn it. It’s the lan­guage God speaks.” 

Although we will nev­er know math­e­mati­cian Grig­o­ry Perelman’s thoughts on God, it’s not a stretch to assume that his God speaks the lan­guage of math­e­mat­ics. Using exten­sive inter­views with Perelman’s teach­ers and col­leagues, Masha Gessen explores Perelman’s sto­ry from his child­hood as a math­e­mat­ics prodi­gy in the Sovi­et Union through his time at uni­ver­si­ties in the Unit­ed States and his return to Rus­sia where he spent sev­en years devel­op­ing the solu­tion to one of the great math­e­mat­i­cal prob­lems of the cen­tu­ry, the Poin­cairé con­jec­ture. Fol­low­ing the release of Perelman’s sem­i­nal work in 2002, he clois­tered him­self ever more from the world, even­tu­al­ly speak­ing to no one out­side of his fam­i­ly. Gessen skill­ful­ly doc­u­ments the toll that the com­pli­ca­tions of real­i­ty, includ­ing the anti-Semit­ic poli­cies of the Sovi­et Union, exert­ed on a man whose mind only tol­er­ates per­fect rig­or. With care­ful insight, she explores Perelman’s ulti­mate retreat into a world com­posed entire­ly of math­e­mat­i­cal ideals; a world where, per­haps, talk­ing with God is final­ly achieved.

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