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In Mathematics, Mistakes Aren’t What They Used To Be

Vladimir Voevodsky had no sooner sat himself down at the sparkling table, set for a dinner party at the illustrious Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, than he overturned his empty wine glass, flipping bowl over stem and standing the glass on its rim—a signal to waiters that he would not be imbibing. He is not always so abstemious, but Voevodsky, that fall of 2013, was in the midst of some serious work.

Founded in 1930, the Institute has been called “the earthly temple of mathematical and theoretical physics,” and is a hub for all manner of rigorous intellectual inquiry. Einstein’s old house is around the corner. In the parking lot a car sports a nerdy bumper sticker reading, “Don’t Believe Everything You Think”—which might very well be aimed directly at Voevodsky. Because during the course of some professional soul-searching over the last decade or so, he’d come to the realization that a mathematician’s work is 5 percent creative insight and 95 percent self-verification. And this was only reinforced by a recent discovery around the time of the dinner party: He’d made a big mistake.


Born in Moscow in 1966, Voevodsky developed an interest in mathematics largely on his own—initially because he wanted to understand physics, later because he unexpectedly fell in love with abstract algebra. Disliking the formalities of academia and neglecting to attend classes, he was “rusticated,” as he puts it, from Moscow State University. After the fall of Communism in 1989, it didn’t matter so much that he never technically completed his undergraduate mathematics degree. He established his credentials working and publishing with his betters, namely the mathematicians Yuri Shabat and Misha Kapranov. He

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