Tuesday, October 17, 2006

NY Times rebuts New Yorker magazine

The NY Times reports:
In August, Dr. Perelman was awarded the Fields Medal at a meeting of the International Mathematical Union in Madrid, but he declined to accept it. A week later a drawing in The New Yorker showed Dr. Yau trying to grab the Fields Medal from the neck of Dr. Perelman.

On his Web site, doctoryau.com, Dr. Yau has posted a 12-page letter showing what he and his lawyer say are errors in the article. The New Yorker has said it stands by its reporting. "My name is damaged in China," Dr. Yau said. "I have to fix my reputation in China in order to help younger students."

He denied that he had ever said there were gaps in Dr. Perelman's work. "I said it is not understood by all people," he said. "That is why it takes three more years." As a "leading geometer," Dr. Yau said he had a duty to dig out the truth of the proof.

The NY Times is essentially taking Yau's side of his dispute with the New Yorker magazine. I previous criticized the New Yorker.

The New Yorker dishonestly and irresponsibly tried to manufacture a controversy over credit. The story that both publications missed was how the Mathematics community hands out credit more fairly and transparently than any other field. This years science Nobel Prizes all went to scientists whose skills were largely directed to assembling and managing a team of other brilliant scientists who did most of the actual work. Whether it is fair or equitable for these prizewinners to get the lion's share of the glory cannot be known to the general public.

The mathematician Perelman worked alone and published his results to a public preprint server. There is no dispute about what he did. It is to the credit of Yau and the Math community that they are willing to give the glory to an unemployed Russian with no political allies.

Mike writes:
I think if you read Yau's talk and the Chinese press, you'll realize how the uninformed New Yorker authors could come away with an impression of credit grabbing. (It also might depend on what emphasis you place on certain words as you read their statements.)

I'm not saying any took place... just that the Chinese sources tended to over-hype the contributions of other Chinese (if not their own), almost as if to inflate the Chinese role in the eyes of the unwashed masses. This is definitely an Asian characteristic: just read the Chinese press on [cryptologist] Wang's accomplishments. There's no moderation in their reporting whatsoever -- they make it sound like she killed SHA-1. Another example is the Japanese/Chinese rivalry on the subject since.

I'm not trying to defend the New Yorker... the article was clearly a particularly bad piece of journalism, something perhaps more worthy of a Dan Brown than a high-profile Columbia professor.
Sylvia Nasar interviewed enough mathematicians to get the story. Maybe she has enough evidence to survive a libel lawsuit, but I say that she still botched the story. The New Yorker made the point of the story how Yau was robbing Perelman out of credit for the Poincare Conjecture proof, and cheating him out of a Fields Medal. But Perelman got the Fields Medal, and Yau helped him get it. Perelman will also get the million dollar Clay prize, although it is possible that a share will goto Hamilton and others. There just isn't any significant dispute about what Perelman did.

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