Progress Toward Twin-Prime Conjecture

This nice article came through on wired today:

Unknown Mathematician Proves Surprising Property of Prime Numbers

By Erica Klarreich, Simons Science News

Image: bwright923/Flickr

On April 17, a paper arrived in the inbox of Annals of Mathematics, one of the discipline’s preeminent journals. Written by a mathematician virtually unknown to the experts in his field — a 50-something lecturer at the University of New Hampshire named Yitang Zhang — the paper claimed to have taken a huge step forward in understanding one of mathematics’ oldest problems, the twin primes conjecture.

Editors of prominent mathematics journals are used to fielding grandiose claims from obscure authors, but this paper was different. 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, and the Annals editors decided to put it on the fast track.

Just three weeks later — a blink of an eye compared to the usual pace of mathematics journals — Zhang received the referee report on his paper.

“The main results are of the first rank,” one of the referees wrote. The author had proved “a landmark theorem in the distribution of prime numbers.”


This is very exciting news, and the whole story has a fantastic David & Goliath feel–“little known mathematician delivers a crushing blow to a centuries old problem” (not a fatal blow, but a crushing one). It’s such a feel-good story, almost like Andrew Wiles and Fermat’s Last Theorem. Here’s my favorite part of the article:

…during a half-hour lull in his friend’s backyard before leaving for a concert, the solution suddenly came to him. “I immediately realized that it would work,” he said.

Just chillin’ in his friend’s backyard…and it came to him! Anyone who has worked on math problems or puzzles has had this experience, right? It seems like an experience common to all people. This has definitely happened to me lots of times–an insight hits me out of nowhere and unlocks a problem I’ve been working on for weeks. It’s one of the reasons we do mathematics!