Masha Gessen. 2009. Perfect Rigor. A genius and the mathematical breakthrough of the century. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 242 pp.

This should have been a compelling account of the Russian mathematician Grigory Perelman, who solved the Poincaré Conjecture. This is a topology problem that I still don’t understand. All great mathematicians seem to be seriously eccentric, and Perelman is right up there. Masha Gessen suggests he has Asperger’s Syndrome. In any case he solved the Poincaré Conjecture to the satisfaction of mathematicians and of the Clay Institute, and spent a few weeks in the USA giving coherent and extensive lectures about his solution, but then returned to Russia and abruptly withdrew from mathematics and the world. And refused the $US1 million prize from the Clay Institute. The book is mostly about Perelman (from interviews) and the Russian system and the way it both supports and frustrates mathematicians and their discipline. Masha Gessen failed in her attempts to meet or speak with her subject. I don’t think the book quite recovers from this, partly because I found the author puts a bit much of herself into the narrative. And not enough mathematics.

I was disappointed by this, perhaps unfairly. Probably Perelman is just too remote and incomplete, and the Poincaré Conjecture just too impenetrable to non-mathematicians.