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12/30/2003: Arcanum Arcanum

Century-old math problem may have been solved
By Jascha Hoffman, The Boston Globe

BERKELEY, Calif. -- A reclusive Russian mathematician appears to have answered a question that has stumped mathematicians for more than a century.

After a decade of isolation in St. Petersburg, over the last year Grigory Perelman posted a few papers to an online archive. Although he has no known plans to publish them, his work has sent shock waves through what is usually a quiet field.

If Perelman really has proved the so-called Poincare Conjecture, as many believe he has, he will become known as one of the great mathematicians of the 21st century and will be first in line for a $1 million prize offered by the Clay Mathematics Institute in Cambridge.

The Poincare Conjecture, named after the Frenchman who proposed it in 1904, is the question that essentially founded the field of topology, the "rubber-sheet geometry" that looks at the properties of surfaces that don't change no matter how much you stretch or bend them.

To solve it, one would have to prove something that no one seriously doubts: that, just as there is only one way to bend a two-dimensional plane into a shape without holes -- the sphere -- there is likewise only one way to bend three-dimensional space into a shape that has no holes. Though abstract, the conjecture has powerful practical implications: Solve it and you may be able to describe the shape of the universe.