BookshelfJacob deGroot-Maggetti

Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century – Masha Gessen

Thoughts: Perfect Rigor is a biography of Grigory Perelman, the Russian mathematician who solved the Poincaré Conjecture, as well as an outline of the events surrounding his coming up with the proof and its release. The title is a bit unfortunate, and I wouldn't be surprised if it was the publisher's choice rather than the author's – Masha Gessen doesn't lean particularly hard on the ideas of "rigor" or "genius", and even the "mathematical breakthrough of the century" only occupies the last few chapters. I learned a bit about the culture of professional mathematics, and about antisemitism in the Soviet Union (students being denied opportunities and academics being denied positions because they were Jewish was a recurring theme throughout the book), but didn’t come away from the book with any grand insights. Nevertheless, I found Gessen’s writing engaging; those with an interest in contemporary mathematics would likely enjoy this book.

(The notes below are not a summary of the book, but rather raw notes - whatever I thought, at the time, might be worth remembering.)

Gessen, Masha. 2009. Perfect Rigor: A Genius and the Mathematical Breakthrough of the Century. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


1. Escape into the Imagination

2. How to Make a Mathematician

3. A Beautiful School

4. A Perfect Score

5. Rules for Adulthood

6. Guardian Angels

7. Round Trip

8. The Problem

9. The Proof Emerges

10. The Madness

11. The Million-Dollar Question

Posted: Apr 08, 2021. Last updated: Aug 31, 2023.