Long Time Coming

Week in Review / by Joe Kloc /

The story of one of history's most infamous math problems illustrates the difficulties facing congress in the wake of healthcare reform.

Illustration: Mike Pick

“What’s next on the horizon?” Charlie Rose asked Senior Advisor to the President, David Axelrod on Tuesday. Obama had just signed into law the 10-year, $938 billion healthcare bill that will provide coverage to 32 million uninsured Americans. Rose wanted to know what big problem the administration planned to tackle next, considering the bitter divide growing in congress. Axelrod gave a strange reply—“Well obviously [healthcare] is a hundred-year debate”—and shortly thereafter alluded to every major issue from education to energy. He wasn’t keen on saying much that day, no doubt at least in part because, over the past 14 months, he had come to understand that grand, elusive problems like healthcare reform often remain so grand and elusive for a reason.


About a hundred years ago the French mathematician Henri Poincaré laid out one of the greatest mathematical problems of the 20th century. He made the now-infamous conjecture that no-matter how much you contort a three-dimensional sphere—or 3-sphere—as long as you don’t tear it, puncture it, or crease, it is still, mathematically speaking, a 3-sphere. As Stephen Ornes wrote in Seed a few years back, “The conjecture gives mathematicians a short and easy way to identify a deformed blob as a sphere in disguise.” For Poincaré and almost a century of mathematicians after him, a proof of this idea remained elusive.


At least according to the New York Times, the history of America’s healthcare struggle began in 1912 with Theodore Roosevelt’s campaign promise of national health insurance for all Americans. But when Roosevelt lost his campaign for a second (nonconsecutive) term in the White House, that was that. In 1948 President Truman tried his hand at healthcare, endorsing a report that recommended a 10-year healthcare reform program. But opponents cried “socialized medicine” at a time when “socialized” was just about the dirtiest word going. After Soviet-occupied North Korea crossed the 38th parallel into US-occupied South Korea and spurred a war sold to the public as the battle against communism, Truman’s argument probably seemed like a lost cause. And so it was abandoned. Finally, in 1965, Lyndon Johnson signed the Medicare–Social Security bill into law with Truman at his side in Independence, Missouri. “The people of the United States love and voted for Harry Truman not because he gave them hell, but because he gave them hope,” Johnson said.  But while the Medicare–Social Security bill was a monumental piece of legislation, it still left many Americans uninsured.


To steal a phrase from Joe Biden, it was “a big fucking deal” in 2002 when a Russian mathematician named Grigori Perelman finally offered a valid proof of the Poincaré conjecture. But controversy in the math world erupted when a group of Chinese mathematicians began vying for credit. Perelman told the New Yorker in 2006 that he wasn’t sure exactly what the mathematicians were claiming to have done (it now seems to be the general consensus that Perelman deserved the credit), but he wanted none of academia’s politics. He declined the Fields Medal (often called the Nobel Prize of mathematics) and withdrew from academic life. Explaining his distaste for the profession, he said, “there are many mathematicians who are more or less honest. But almost all of them are conformists. They are more or less honest, but they tolerate those who are not honest.” In solving one of math’s greatest problems, Perelman had come to understand the destructive power of personal interest.


“There will be a price to be paid to jam [the healthcare] bill through. If [Democrats] do this, it’s going to poison the well for anything else they would like to achieve, this year, or thereafter,” a Republican Senator told ABC News this month. One senator’s threat might not be so bad if that senator wasn’t Lindsey Graham, a member of the tri-partisan trio with Democratic senator John Kerry and Independent senator Joe Lieberman, who together had been polishing up a climate change bill.

It is strange that Graham would make these comments considering speculation that environmental issues like climate change and energy will fall next on Obama’s desk. Axelrod told Rose: “We are going to have to work on energy. It is a great challenge of this century and we have to face it.” To be sure, climate change and energy are no “hundred-year-old” issues like healthcare, but the sense one gets from Axelrod is that we might not want to wait that long. “The Chinese are working on it, India is working on it, and Brazil is working on it. We can’t hang back. We have to continue to lead. And to do that we have to get serious about energy.”

The draft of the bill, according to Businessgreen.com, includes “controversial proposals for a tax on oil designed to drive up fuel prices and incentivise motorists to switch to more efficient vehicles; a $10 [billion] fund to drive investment in low carbon technologies, including clean coal; up to $54 [billion] in loan guarantees for new nuclear power plants; and proposals for a carbon tariff on imports from countries without carbon regulations in place.”  The bill seems to be gaining widespread acceptance in the necessary circles. A coalition of 20 environmentalist groups including the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Union of Concerned Scientists released a statement last Friday that they were in large part pleased with the direction of the bill. And industrial groups have indicated that they would likely support it as well.

Another possible focus of the Obama administration is revising Social Security. The New York Times has reported that many budget analysts think “it now stands as the likeliest source of the sort of large savings needed to bring projected annual deficits to sustainable levels.” But one difficulty facing any reform is that, if Senator John McCain’s comment that “there will be no cooperation for the rest of the year” is any indicator of Republican sentiment around congress, it is hard to imagine anything moving through before November without almost total support of the Democrats. The healthcare bill showed this is possible, but it also showed just how difficult it could be.

One can hardly imagine that Republican anger is entirely unfounded, and surely the Democrats had to step (and even stomp) on some toes to get what they wanted. But the absurdity of a public servant threatening to essentially stop doing his or her job until the next election is disturbing, to say the least. As a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid put it the other day: “For someone who campaigned on ‘Country First’ and claims to take great pride in bipartisanship, it’s absolutely bizarre for Senator McCain to tell the American people he is going to take his ball and go home until the next election.”


Last week Grigori Perelman was offered the $1 million Millennium Prize for his proof of the Poincaré conjecture. The conjecture was one of seven unsolved problems in mathematics that had a million-dollar bounty placed on its solution in 2000 by the Clay Mathematics Institute. The institute explained why it chose the seven problems it did: “The prizes were conceived…to emphasize the importance of working towards a solution of the deepest, most difficult problems.” Surely Perelman, having devoted much of his mathematical career to proving the conjecture, agrees with this sentiment. And yet, earlier this week, almost a decade after he first released his proof, Perelman officially declined the $1 million prize. Though he did not comment to journalists on why he declined the award, his reasoning is no doubt the same as that he gave angrily to the New Yorker when asked about whether leaving academia would stop his ability to influence his field: “I am not a politician!”

If there is a moral to the story of the Poincaré conjecture it might be in another of Perelman’s comments to the New Yorker: “[If] I made an error and someone used my work to construct a correct proof I would be pleased.” For him, the mathematicians seeking credit for his proof had missed the point of mathematics. In much the same way, John McCain missed the point of public service when he vowed to pack it in for the rest of the year because he thought the Democrats played dirty—they very well may have, but the bill is signed and there are other fights to fight. Agree with healthcare reform or not, it’s a hard argument to make that Washington is healthy when it is split between a Republican strategy of nonparticipation and a Democratic strategy of trying to pass as many measures as possible before losing too many seats in congress. Self-serving politics only muddy the chances of finding solutions to those “deepest, most difficult problems.” I suspect this was Perelman’s point this week when he turned down the prize, though it is uncertain how well-taken it was. In any case, this week was a long time coming.

Joe Kloc is a staff editor for Seed. He possesses an impressive tolerance for intermittent housing and enjoys writing about old music.

Originally published March 26, 2010

Tags energy environment medicine policy politics

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