Perelman and Majorana: Two Tales of Genius

A new biography of geometry genius Grigory Perelman is enjoyable, but not as successful as one of unheralded physicist Ettore Majorana

On the evening of 26 March, 1938, a young Italian nuclear physicist boarded a ferry in Palermo, Sicily. At the time, Ettore Majorana—a working colleague of nuclear pioneer Enrico Fermi, a friend to uncertainty principle developer Werner Heisenberg, and an undisputed genius in his own right—seemed poised to shake up or even revolutionize physics. Instead, he was never heard from again. Some believe Majorana committed suicide. Others suspect he slipped away to start a new life elsewhere.

Less eerily but no less strangely, in December 2005, Russian mathematician Grigory Perelman quit his job at the Steklov Mathematical Institute in St. Petersburg. The preeminent genius who two years earlier proved the Poincaré conjecture, one of the greatest problems in mathematics, simply stopped working. He reportedly hasn’t done any math since and today lives with his mother.

New biographies of these renegade ”beautiful minds” are now on bookshelves. Like their subjects, both books are idiosyncratic.

a brilliant darkness
A Brilliant Darkness: The Extraordinary Life and Mysterious Disappearance of Ettore Majorana, the Troubled Genius of the Nuclear Age; By João Magueijo; Basic Books, 2009; 280 pp.; US $27.50, ISBN: 978-0-465-00903-9

A Brilliant Darkness: The Extraordinary Life and Mysterious Disappearance of Ettore Majorana, the Troubled Genius of the Nuclear Age by João Magueijo, in fact, carves out its own subgenre. Rarely can the phrases ”page-turning mystery” and ”creative introduction to modern physics” be uttered about the same tome. Part thriller, part biography, part history, part scientific primer, Darkness is a remarkable book because of Majorana’s singular nature and incredible story, but also because Magueijo is a superb storyteller and, as a theoretical physicist at Imperial College London, an ideal biographer of Majorana. (In the interest of full disclosure, this reviewer once worked on a television pilot about cosmology hosted by Magueijo, for the Science Channel.)

From its first pages, Darkness grabs the reader with the grand mystery at its core—that strange night in 1938. It’s no spoiler to say that it never finds a definitive answer; Magueijo captivates the reader by navigating the tale’s historical, scientific, and biographical currents—at turns contemplative and brooding like its subject, acerbic and cheeky like its author.

Not so surprisingly for people working in such highly abstract fields, both biographical subjects suffered from personality disorders that probably put them somewhere on the autism spectrum. Rendering such characters sympathetic is no easy task. But Magueijo makes Majorana, as well as the physics he pioneered, approachable and engaging.

perfect rigor
Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century; By Masha Gessen; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009; 256 pp.; US $26.00; ISBN: 978-0-15-101406-4

In Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century, author Masha Gessen does not similarly succeed. Although her subject never gave her an interview, she clearly talked with nearly everyone else in his puzzling life, and her reconstruction of Perelman makes Perfect Rigor an enjoyable narrative. But all too often she skips over the mathematics in favor of gumshoe reporting.

Core subjects—topology, geometry, and Jules Henri Poincaré (1854–1912)—are outlined sparingly and in soft focus. So the chapters that discuss Soviet-era mathematics as a kind of ersatz samizdat for would-be dissidents offer no fascinating historical digressions but merely teasers that leave a reader yearning for more. As a nonmathematician, I came away with an unsatisfied curiosity about the very thing that makes Perelman fit for a biography: the mathematical brilliance of his proof.

To be sure, Gessen elegantly sets the stage, revealing the Poincaré conjecture’s lineage from Euclid to modern-day topology. But even here, there’s not a single diagram or illustration to help make sense of the many abstruse (but still geometrical!) underlying concepts. Ultimately, I learned more about the Poincaré proof from a Wikipedia entry.

Near the end of Perfect Rigor, mathematician Jim Carlson addresses the book’s author about Perelman’s oftentimes murky proofs. ”There were many methods and ideas,” Carlson says. ”It’s always hard to communicate these to a general audience, but I hope you can do that when you write your book.”

In the final analysis, A Brilliant Darkness fulfills Carlson’s conjecture, while Perfect Rigor does not.

This article originally appeared in print as "Two Beautiful Minds, One Perfectly Rendered."

About the Author

MARK ANDERSON is a technology journalist in Northampton, Mass. He wrote about the newest generation of digital cameras in the March issue of IEEE Spectrum. He also contributes to a number of other outlets, including Wired, NationalGeographic.com, and National Public Radio.

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