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Reclusive Russian Refuses Top Math Award

Grigory Perelman in an undated file photo (epa) PRAGUE, August 22, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Russian mathematician Grigory Perelman has won one of the world's top mathematics prizes, but is unlikely to accept it.

The 40-year-old Perelman was one of four mathematicians to be awarded the Fields Medal, a biennial honor regarded as the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for mathematics, announced today at the 25th International Congress of Mathematicians in Madrid.

Perelman won the medal for solving a century-old math puzzle called Poincare's conjecture, a famous mathematical problem seeking to explain the geometry of three-dimensional space. The answer could help scientists better understand the shape of the universe.

Mathematicians had previously failed to solve the conjecture, which was proposed by French mathematician Jules Henri Poincare in 1904.

Reclusive Genius

But all the signs are that the Perelman, who lives with his mother in St. Petersburg, is not interested in claiming credit for cracking the century-old math problem.

He spurned today's ceremony in Madrid, failing to pick up his award from King Juan Carlos of Spain. Perelman has also said he will refuse a $1 million prize offered by a private mathematics research institute in the United States.

Some say he has become disillusioned with mathematics and dissociated himself from the field.

Anatoly Vershik, his former university lecturer and colleague at the Steklov Institute of Mathematics in St. Petersburg, says he is at a loss to explain Perelman's behavior. But he describes him as somewhat of a reclusive character.

"He is a person whose reactions are not quite usual, he is a modest mathematician, very talented and devoted to his science," Vershik says. "He is a very introverted person, rather difficult to communicate with. He loves music and plays some violin."

In December, Perelman quit his research post at the Steklov Institute, citing personal reasons.

Vershik says Perelman still lives in St. Petersburg but is currently unemployed. "He has been at our institute since graduating 17 years ago, but he decided to go. The reasons, once again, are unclear," he says. "But they are definitely not linked to our institute, we all begged him not to leave, but for some reason he decided to leave."

Not The First

Perelmam is not the first mathematician to refuse the Fields Medal. In 1966, German mathematician Alexander Grothendieck refused to pick up his prize in Moscow as a sign of protest against the Soviet military intervention in Eastern Europe. Grothendieck, however, later collected his award.

Perelman and Grothendieck might have something else in common -- their disillusionment with mathematics. Grothendieck ultimately dropped mathematics and is now believed to be living as a hermit in Andorra.

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