Here is a (yet another) cautionary tale about productivity indicators in academia – how many of the greatest discoveries in science or the greatest academic thinkers would have been nurtured (let alone employed) in academia of today? And what of the relative value of one paper that solves a puzzle that baffled mathematicians for more than a century versus 20 papers on somewhat more mundane issues that anyone could address?
American colleagues remember his fingernails being unusually long as well as his eccentricity, and the frugality of his lifestyle. In 1995, he shocked his peers by returning to the poorly funded research institute in St Petersburg, turning down lucrative offers in America in favour of a salary worth the equivalent of pounds 120 a month.
He had been uninterested in churning out routine academic papers and was determined to focus on solving a complex maths puzzle known as the Poincare conjecture that had baffled mathematicians for more than a century. But it seems his new colleagues lost patience with him.
“Grigory did not want to waste his time [on academic papers] and colleagues voted him out. They voted out the most brilliant mathematician in the world,” recalled Tamara Yefimova, one of his former maths teachers. Embittered, Mr Perelman left in December 2005 and appears not to have worked since. In 2002 and 2003 he had quietly published the answer to the Poincare conjecture, which involved proving a hypothesis about three dimensional space and which academics believe could further our understanding of how the universe is structured.
It took four years for teams of academics around the world to check Mr Perelmans solution, but eventually they confirmed that he had cracked something that many had thought was unsolvable.