A Harvard mathematician has accused The New Yorker, a magazine famed for its meticulous fact-checking, of defaming him in a recent article.
Shing-Tung Yau—who is the Graustein professor of mathematics and a winner of the 1982 Fields Medal, often considered the math equivalent of a Nobel Prize—is demanding an apology and retraction from the magazine for its Aug. 28 article, “Manifold Destiny,” penned by Columbia University journalism professor Sylvia Nasar and Rutgers University graduate student David Gruber.
Yau’s challenge to The New Yorker is particularly bold because of Nasar’s international acclaim—she was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her 1998 book “A Beautiful Mind,” which later became an Oscar-winning film.
A letter sent yesterday from Yau’s attorney, Howard M. Cooper, to the article’s authors and fact-checker charged that “false and defamatory” statements as well as “sensationalized quotes” had “unfairly soiled the reputation of an individual who has spent his entire life earning, justifiably and on the merits, a reputation as one of the foremost mathematicians of our time.”
In a phone interview with The Crimson, Cooper would not comment on whether the parties had made contact, or whether legal action would be taken. But, he said, “Dr. Yau believes that the mathematics community has been unfairly attacked, and it is his intent to painstakingly point out the manner in which the attack is unfair.”
The 12-page letter runs to roughly the same length as the article itself, which spans 13 pages in the magazine, including inserted images.
At the center of the New Yorker article are reclusive Russian mathematician Grigory Perelman and the more sociable Yau. The story opens with a full-page illustration rendering a bespectacled, white-haired, Asian man tugging at a medal labeled “Fields” that dangles from the neck of a brown-bearded Caucasian. Below, the caption reads: “Grigory Perelman (right) says, ‘If the proof is correct, then no other recognition is need.’ Shing-Tung Yau isn’t so sure.”
Cooper wrote that this illustration and the article’s text falsely implied that Yau was trying to rob Perelman of the Fields Medal.
A BATTLE IN THE THIRD DIMENSION
The New Yorker article discusses the century-old Poincaré conjecture, which states that all closed three-dimensional abstract topological spaces with no holes are spheres. This has been proven for two dimensions, and for the fourth, fifth, and higher dimensions. But the proof for the third dimension has continued to elude mathematicians.
Until 2002 that is, when Perelman presented a proof of the conjecture in three installments. It was unusually short, and unorthodox in another way—instead of publishing it in a peer-reviewed academic journal, Perelman posted it to the Internet. But nobody was able to prove it wrong.
“There was little doubt that Perelman...deserved a Fields Medal,” Nasar and Gruber wrote—even though the hermetic genius declined the honor.
Yau, however, is quoted by The New Yorker as saying that Perelman’s proof “was written in such a messy way” that it was incomprehensible. The Harvard professor is promoting another proof written by two of his protégés—a Guangzhou, China-based mathematician and a Lehigh University professor. Yau and his protégés say that their version—while influenced by Perelman—is a “self-contained and complete proof.” Perelman’s backers dispute that claim.
TALK OF THE TOWN
The New Yorker, in an e-mailed statement, said that, “contrary to Dr. Yau’s assertions, the article is nuanced and fair, and was prepared using ethical standards of journalism. Dr. Yau, his supporters and his point of view were given ample space in the article.”
“We stand by the piece and the journalists,” the statement concluded.
But Yau believes he is the victim of “shoddy ‘journalism.’”
Although Yau had met with Nasar for hours, she did not inform him of the “numerous charges and attacks upon him which you intended to publish, so that he could respond to them,” Yau’s lawyer claimed.
At noon today, Yau will be discussing his lawyer’s letter in a public webcast available through his homepage, doctoryau.com.
—Staff writer Lulu Zhou can be reached at email@example.com.
Due to an editing error, the print and original online versions of the Sept. 20 article, "Prof Accuses New Yorker of Defamation," incorrectly stated that Columbia journalism professor Sylvia Nasar has won a Pulitzer Prize for her 1998 book "A Beautiful Mind." In fact, Nasar was a finalist for the award.