From the Archives: Purity of Thought

This is an old post from BCC. But it still holds some lingering questions for me.

Russian Mathematician Grisha Perelman was awarded the Fields Medal in 2006 for completing Richard Hamilton’s program (Ricci flow-Poincaré Conjecture) in 2002-2003. Poincare posed his conjecture in 1904.[1] Science named it the breakthrough of the year, but that was a sort of miraculous understatement, even though it was the first time a mathematical proof received that title. For the Poincaré proof, Perelman was also awarded the first Clay Millennium Prize (one million dollars) in March 2010. Perelman did not publish his results in the usual sense. He posted the proofs online.[2]

Perelman is a purist in a number of ways. He eschewed the established way to communicate research – through refereed journal articles. And perhaps more extraordinarily, he rejected both the Fields Medal (essentially the Nobel Prize in mathematics) and the Millennium Prize. A collaborator and friend Mikhail Gromov:

[I understand] Perelman’s logic: “To do great work, you have to have a pure mind. You can think only about the mathematics. Everything else is human weakness. Accepting prizes is showing weakness.” Others might view Perelman’s refusal to accept a Fields as arrogant, Gromov said, but his principles are admirable. “The ideal scientist does science and cares about nothing else,” he said. “He wants to live this ideal. Now, I don’t think he really lives on this ideal plane. But he wants to.”[3]

Admittedly, Perelman seems a little extreme. But does “balance” equal mediocrity?

Our society generally admires those who can multitask, if not brilliantly, at least competently.[4] We even assign titles to people who fail spectacularly (congressman) and to those who seem to succeed in spades (super mom?). “Bringing your work home” is a practice which is panned everywhere it seems, especially in Church videos (though it’s the focused overachiever who ends up on the news).[5] However, successful grad students do it all the time, if not literally, then mentally. Scholars dream about their work. But at BYU for instance, we don’t want faculty who achieve tooooo much. And so we don’t have many who really do. They go home and have family night.[6]

In the Church we make priority lists. What’s more important? 1. Family. 2. Job. 3. Church. 4. Whatever. Obsession be da*ned (*does* it damn you?). [2. and 3. got inverted a while back.]

I’ve got an obsession or two. Everything else seems to squeeze through the cracks between them. (Even Perelman plays table tennis.) Where do we draw the line? Is a pure mind necessary for *great* work? (In the link, 1:43+ esp.) The answer is yes, I think.

I once heard Neal Maxwell say “the Church priority list” applies only to non-GAs.

J. Reuben Clark came home from work, ate dinner, went up to the office and worked until bedtime.[7] The kids came into the office to say goodnight. For the rest of us, maybe it’s case by case? Quality not quantity used to be the overachiever’s mantra. Now quantity is back in vogue.

Polygamy anyone?

[1] Poincaré’s conjecture: The most famous problem in topology. Any closed 3-D manifold in which any embedded loop can be contracted to a point is equivalent (in a technical sense) to a 3-D sphere. The problem can be stated in higher dimensions, but is easier to solve in the affirmative there. [3-D = three dimensional.]

[2] A few people do this now. I do it, but not because I’m in Perelman’s class. Just because I have reservations about the process. But my resolve is fading mostly because the university doesn’t like it.

[3] The quote is from an August 20, 2006 article in The Telegraph by Nadejda Lobastova and Michael Hirst.

[4] When the fragments of P. Joseph Smith were returned to the Church in 1967, many members anticipated that President McKay, not Hugh Nibley would be having a look, maybe through an antique seer stone. You know, Joseph Smith and all. And the recent recession has (politically) hammered the POTUS, the Federal Reserve, the congress and just about every other institution in sight mainly because they weren’t savvy or plugged in enough to see it coming. I get this same kind of thing when the toilet leaks or the fridge breaks down.

[5] The negative side of focus seems to always play out in Church devotional materials (dad’s never really there and the kids go bad, nearly, until dad comes to his senses). But it would be hard to find a more focused person than Joseph Smith. (See happenings of March – April 1832.)

[6] I was going to say “any” but that seemed too inflammatory. I’m not claiming the goal is bad. But I wonder if it isn’t paradoxical in some Mormon ways. Merrill Bateman to me: “We don’t want Nobel Laureates here.” But we (I include myself) sure don’t mind the idea of a national championship.

[7] First Presidency member 1933-1959. See D. Michael Quinn’s bio.

One Response to From the Archives: Purity of Thought

  1. Dustin says:

    So, by the same token, if we purify our minds (and hearts) and make them single to the glory of God, is that not how exaltation is obtained?

    Maybe the point is not to let our minds become pure to the temporary.

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