Will Hunting is a fictional character, but if he existed in real life, he may have ended up like Grigori Perelman — a Russian mathematician widely regarded as one of the most brilliant (and enigmatic) minds the world has ever seen. Perelman, 46, is best known for solving the Poincaré Conjecture, a problem that had stymied generations of mathematicians before him. Perelman’s achievement earned him accolades and fame, though he willfully walked away from all of it, in much the same way that Matt Damon’s character shuns his own brilliance throughout much of Good Will Hunting. The Telegraph‘s Brett Forest explains:
For nearly 100 years, the conjecture had confused the sharpest minds in maths, many of whom had claimed its proof, only to have their work discarded upon subsequent scrutiny. The problem had broken spirits, wasted lives. By the time that Perelman defeated the conjecture, after many years of concentrated exertion, the Poincaré had affected him so profoundly that he appeared broken too.
He had shut off contact with most friends and colleagues, stopped cutting his hair and nails and cultivated a wild beard. In 2005, he resigned from his job, saying he was “disappointed” in maths and in 2006, he became the first person in history to turn down the Fields Medal, the top award in mathematics. He declined professorships at Princeton and Berkeley and, in 2010, he shocked the world again by refusing another major prize worth $1million.
Today, Perelman lives with his mother in St. Petersburg and is famously wary of journalists, though Forest recently managed to track him down and have a brief, if somewhat halting conversation with him after a lengthy stakeout.
Perelman spoke with a high-toned, bird-like voice. And he knew what to say. “You’re a journalist?” I nodded. Perelman looked at the sky, letting out a pained sigh. “I don’t give interviews.” “I know,” I said. “That’s OK.” Perelman and his mother stopped walking. They looked me up and down, as though what I said had confused them. I didn’t know how this was going to go, so I put on a big smile. “Good weather today, huh?” And to my surprise, both the terrifying recluse and his mother let out a laugh. I was in.
You can read the rest of Forest’s story here.