Russian academia as petri dish: How the Poincaré Conjecture was solved

The Wall Street Journal ran a piece the other day by Masha Geesen, adapted from her latest book, about the culture of mathematics during Soviet times and how it evolved into a post-Soviet brain drain, with the Poincaré Conjecture as the centerpiece of the narrative:

Math not only held out the promise of intellectual work without state interference (if also without its support) but also something found nowhere else in late-Soviet society: a knowable singular truth. “If I had been free to choose any profession, I would have become a literary critic,” says Georgii Shabat, a well-known Moscow mathematician. “But I wanted to work, not spend my life fighting the censors.” The search for that truth could take long years–but in the late Soviet Union, time seemed to stand still.

When it all collapsed, the state stopped investing in math and holding its mathematicians hostage. It’s hard to say which of these two factors did more to send Russian mathematicians to the West, primarily the U.S., but leave they did, in what was probably one of the biggest outflows of brainpower the world has ever known. Even the older Mr. Gelfand moved to the U.S. and taught at Rutgers University for nearly 20 years, almost until his death in October at the age of 96. The flow is probably unstoppable by now: A promising graduate student in Moscow or St. Petersburg, unable to find a suitable academic adviser at home, is most likely to follow the trail to the U.S.

But the math culture they find in America, while less back-stabbing than that of the Soviet math establishment, is far from the meritocratic ideal that Russia’s unofficial math world had taught them to expect. American math culture has intellectual rigor but also suffers from allegations of favoritism, small-time competitiveness, occasional plagiarism scandals, as well as the usual tenure battles, funding pressures and administrative chores that characterize American academic life. This culture offers the kinds of opportunities for professional communication that a Soviet mathematician could hardly have dreamed of, but it doesn’t foster the sort of luxurious, timeless creative work that was typical of the Soviet math counterculture.

Read more here.