Sunday, August 27, 2006

A Journalist's Conjecture

A professor of business journalism at the Columbia University, Sylvia Nasar has been known for her emotional writing style, as evident in her award winning book 'A Beautiful Mind' on American mathematician John Forbes Nash. However, her recent New Yorker article on the grand prusuite of a proof of the Poincare Conjecture was a controversy on journalism ethics. The article was titled MANIFOLDDESTINY---A legendary problem and the battle over who solved it. It was published on August 28, 2006.

Probably resonant on the lonely journey of Nash, Nasar felt an obligation in proving the deserveed credit to a reclusive Russian mathemacian Perelman. Perelman drew attention around the world after he posted on Internet three notes in 2002 and 2003. The Poincare Conjecture is a foundamental math problem with broad applications. It is also one of seven millennuim problems selected by the Clay Institution with a one million dollors award each. Many mathematicians consider Parelman's notes, although incomplete, elimiated the last obsticle in the path set by Hamilton. Parelman declined the Fields Medal awarded to him by the IMU. The Fields Medal is seen as the equivalent of Nobel Prize in mathematics. Not to metioned that he lost his position at a St. Petersburg research institute not long ago.

Although people agree the importance of Parelman's notes, not everyone agree on the weight of the importance. Parelman did not give a idea on how to solve a key issue of the proof, but did not give any detailed work. As a more than 100 years old problem, other people also contributed to the proof. Among them, Yau, Hamilton and Thuson are the pomient ones.

Yau, a Fields Medal receipent, is a founder of string theory. Hamilton developped the Racci Flow, which was immediately noticed by Yau to be a long-awaited tool to solve the Poincare Conjecture. Yau encouraged Hamilton to work on the Conjecture. Yau also advaocated among his Chinese followers to work on the Conjecture with Racci Flow. Parelman's notes pointed out he actually solved the problem with a smart technique on Racci Flow. Mathematicians around the world had been excited on Parelman's notes, but few could tell whether it's correct or not. In 2003, two independent groups of top mathematicians contracted by the Clay Institute to study the correctness and completeness of Parelmans's notes. In 2004, another group of mathematicians were sponsored by the NSF to join the effort. The third group C-Z was able to present a complete proof first in 2006 with a 328 pages publications on the Asian Journal of Mathematics, of which Yau is the chief-eidtor. Yau considers C-Z's finished the last brick in the building of mansion. In science, people often say the details is the devil. Many common sense has never been pproved by serious proof, or may never be.

Nasar disagrees. In order to give all credits to Parelman, she has to remove Yau from the picture, which would be hard. In stead of confronting Yau's contribution, she lauched a smear campaign by throwing personal attacks and making up rumors. In an article presumbly about the Poincare Conjecture, Nasar threw in a lengthy story telling on personal disputes between Yau and one of his students, as well as Yau's ambitious to replace late Chern as Chinese leader in the math world.

Nasar understood negative comments from Yau's enemies did not build a good case, and that she had to go the dark force. In a move doomed to stun the world, Nasar posed herself as a Yau's fans to approach Yau's friends and collaborators seeking their opinions on Yau. Their commenets were exploited in a smear compaign against Yau in her New Yorker Article. After the article was published, her interviewees were furious to find what's in the print. Alas, too late.

Nasar devided her article into three parts, of which the thrid part was totally used on personal attackes on Yau, build on comments from Dr. San Stoock of MIT. In the interview when Nasar posed as a fans of Yau, Stoock told her that he was worried on Yau, because of his courage in fighting with corruptions. When the comments came to print in Nasar's article, it trunned to a total smear against Yau. No one explained it better than Stoock's own Statement,


I, like several others whom Sylvia Nasar interviewed, am shocked and angered by the article which she and Gruber wrote for the New Yorker. Having seen Yau in action during his June conference on string theory, Nasar led me to believe that she was fascinated by S-T Yau and asked me my opinion about his activities. I told her that I greatly admire Yau's efforts to support young Chinese mathematicians and to break down the ossified power structure in the Chinese academic establishment. I then told her that I sometimes have doubts about his methodology. In particular, I told her that, at least to my ears, Yau weakens his case and lays himself open to his enemies by sounding too self-promoting.

As it appears in her article, she has purposefully distorted my statementand made it unforgivably misleading. Like the rest of us, Yau has his faults, but, unlike most of us, his virtues outweigh his faults. Unfortunately, Nasar used my statement to bolster her case that the opposite is true, and for this I cannot forgive her.

Michael Anderson of the SUNY Stony Brook was another victim of Nasar. Returnned from a Eurpoean trip, Anderson was furious finding his candit comments was misquoted by Nasar in her article:

Dear Yau,

I am furious, and completely shocked, at what Sylvia Nasar wrote. Her quote of me is completely wrong and baseless. There are other factual mistakes in the article, in addition to those you pointed out.

I have left her phone and email messages this evening and hope to speak to her tomorrow at the latest to clear this up. I want her to remove this statement completely from the article. It serves no purpose and contains no factual information; I view it as stupid gossip unworthy of a paper like the New Yorker. At the moment, the print version has not appeared and so it might be possible to fix this still. I spent several hours with S. Nasar on the phone talking about Perelman, Poincare, etc but it seems I was too naive (and I'm now disgusted) in believing this journalist would report factually.

I regret very much this quote falsely attributed to me and will do whatever I can to have it removed.

I will keep you informed as I know more.

Yours, Michael

What exactly have been said behind that closed doors would probably be a Rashomon. That might be a tape recorder silently rotating, but we may not know the contents for another hundred years. There could be many cheap execuses such as third party privacy, confidentiality or simply protection of her source. But what's in the article has ireversably stired the otherwise silient world of mathematicians. Questions have been bouncing around nonetheless: "Where is the integrety?"

Less than a month ago, the Reuters fired a contract photographer on a doctered photo with intensified black smoke rising from debrits in Beiruit after Isreal bombing. The one million dollor question is, do they teach Journalism Ethics at Columbia?

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