It may be no accident that, while some of the best American mathematical minds worked to solve one of the century’s hardest problemsâ€”the PoincarÃ© Conjectureâ€”it was a Russian mathematician working in Russia who, early in this decade, finally triumphed.
Decades before, in the Soviet Union, math placed a premium on logic and consistency in a culture that thrived on rhetoric and fear; it required highly specialized knowledge to understand; and, worst of all, mathematics lay claim to singular and knowable truthsâ€”when the regime had staked its own legitimacy on its own singular truth. All this made mathematicians suspect. Still, math escaped the purges, show trials and rule by decree that decimated other Soviet sciences.
Three factors saved math. First, Russian math happened to be uncommonly strong right when it might have suffered the most, in the 1930s. Second, math proved too obscure for the sort of meddling Joseph Stalin most liked to exercise: It was simply too difficult to ignite a passionate debate about something as inaccessible as the objective nature of natural numbers (although just such a campaign was attempted). And third, at a critical moment math proved immensely useful to the state.