“You are disturbing me. I’m picking mushrooms”
Remember when you were 5 or 6 years old and you were sitting alone in the sandbox, poking the worm in the sand with the branch and having a moment of contemplation. In that serene moment, even though you weren’t thinking of anything in particular, but invited different thoughts as they came, everything became clear.
Perhaps, you thoughts wandered from the little worm into some grander things, like why are you here? It is then that you gave it a possibility that your parents and adults in general may not have all the answers. Inevitably, your accidental meditation was interrupted by some earthly things like your parents who came to pick you up or other screaming kids invading your tranquil sandbox. This kind of state of mind became rarer and rarer as years roll by and by your teens you were preoccupied with other more important stuff. It is likely that you will never regain the ability to contemplate in this manner. I was able to recreate a similar state years later with the use of hallucinogenic drugs. It wasn’t my intent though, it just happened and I realized that I’ve seen this before, however that earlier experience was more authentic because it wasn’t induced by anything.
This reclusive Russian mathematician first appeared in the news a few years ago when he solved Poincare conjecture, a problem that has remained unsolved for about a century. It took top mathematicians all over the world about a year just to understand the proof that he posted on some obscure Russian website. In 2006 he was awarded Fields medal, the highest recognition in the math world, which he never bothered to accept. And a few days ago, he, predictably this time, turned down the $1 million “Millenium” mathematics prize awarded by prestigious Clay Mathematics Institute in Cambridge, MA.
Why do I mention Mr. Perelman? Because I think this is the person who is in permanent “child in the sandbox” state of mind. And those who are trying to contact him, albeit with $1mln in hand, are the screaming kids invading his space.
When some lucky journalist was able to reach him on the phone what he heard was priceless: “You are disturbing me. I’m picking mushrooms.” Below is a great quote from Russian writer Masha Gessen who wrote a book about him, that very accurately describes his mental state.
I concluded that this view, and the rigidity with which he holds to it, is actually directly related to the reason he was able to solve the hardest mathematical problem ever solved. He has a mind that is capable of taking in more information, and embracing more-complex systems, than any mind that has come before. His mind is like a universal math compactor. He grasps hugely complex problems and reduces them to their solvable essence. The problem is, he expects the world of humans to be similarly subject to reduction. He expects the world to function in accordance with a set of strictly laid out rules, and he absolutely cannot take in anything that does not conform to those rules. The world of humans is unruly, though, so Perelman has had to cut off successive chunks of it until all that was left was the apartment he shares with his mother.
We only use about 10% of our mind, but those who use more than 10% are progressively incapable to function in the real world. The more you replace the remaining 90% with contemplation, the less you focus on mundane things like your morning commute, job, money, stupid TV shows and relationships. That explains why Perelman still lives at home with his mother in some shabby apartment in St. Petersburg – because that’s all the ‘real life’ quota that his mind is capable of accommodating. That’s why he wears the same pants, doesn’t shave and doesn’t care about money. Math for math’s sake, not for recognition or profit. Such beautiful mind should truly be an object of admiration.
As I was writing this it made me think of another recluse, who also lived in a similar mental state. However, this guy’s mental state was a result of heavy drug use, that’s why I don’t mean to equate the two – Perelman’s is unquestionably in a kind of its own. I’m talking about Syd Barrett, a founding member of Pink Floyd. “Shine on your Crazy Diamond” is a song dedicated to him, after he left the band. Actually, the word ‘left’ carries a double meaning, because he had so much acid that he ‘left’ into his own world and never came back. Even though he died in 2006, he actually went into seclusion to, yes, live with his mother and never to be seen again, in the 1970s.
I don’t really encourage anyone to take drugs or go get a Ph.D in math. It was an observational post, something I wanted to write about even before I’ve heard of Perelman rejecting the prize. But the Perelman story was a nice excuse to write about the value of quiet “sandbox” time, of undisturbed “mushroom picking” which is increasingly absent in our lives. Kids nowadays simply don’t have time, along with their parents, and because of their parents, to sit around the sandbox and do nothing. They have ballet lessons to go to, just like the parents who rush to catch a train to make to that scheduled yoga lesson. You know, scheduled meditation time.