Brutally Hard Math Is Its Own Reward
Russian mathematician Grigory Perelmanturned down $1 million for proving the Poincaré conjecture. What's that?
Perelman's work isn't important because of its applications. It won't help anyone build a bridge, aim a rocket, crack a code, or privatize Social Security. Mathematicians, no dummies, like to point out that, in some unspecified future, Perelman's theorem might pitch in to help with these problems in ways that aren't obvious now. But its real significance is like that of the fact that a times b is equal to b times a; it's a basic structural statement about how the world is organized. If you prefer order to chaos, that's something worth caring about.]
Jordan Ellenberg is a professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin. His book How Not To Be Wrong is forthcoming. He blogs at Quomodocumque.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.