A completely unknown guy in the world of maths has made a breakthrough discovery that will help us understand numbers better. Basically, a guy who once struggled to find a job and had to work at Subway is helping maths geniuses understand the twin prime conjecture, one of math’s oldest problems.
Now, Yitang Zhang, the mysterious man behind the discovery, isn’t some chump on the side of the street. He earned a doctorate in 1992 from Purdue University and is now a lecturer at the University of New Hampshire, but before his report was published, he was a complete unknown in mathematics. After he got his doctorate, he spent many years as an accountant and worked at Subway because he couldn’t get a job in academia. Andrew Granville, a number theorist said:
“Basically, no one knows him… Now, suddenly, he has proved one of the great results in the history of number theory.”
What Zhang did is especially impressive because many number theorists thought the problem he’s cracking was something no one was ever going to solve.
How did Zhang come out of nowhere? Simple. He just did his work and wrote it down. Zhang submitted a paper to a top journal, Annals of Mathematics, and when the editors ran through his paper, they discovered its genius calling it “first rank” and said that Zhang proved “a landmark theorem in the distribution of prime numbers”. The Simons Foundation says Zhang’s paper was written “with crystalline clarity and a total command of the topic’s current state of the art, it was evidently a serious piece of work.” Some guy no one knew of three weeks ago just solved an unsolvable problem.
For more detail on what Zhang helped make a breakthrough in (it involves proving that there are infinitely pairs of prime numbers with some finite gap, a sieve and a hair’s breadth), read the whole fascinating report at Simons Foundation. [Simons Foundation via Kottke]