Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!
It has been a thrilling last month in the world of mathematics. Several new proofs about number patterns have been announced. Just to get a flavor for what it’s all about, here are some examples.
I can make 15 by adding together three prime numbers: 3+5+7. I can do this with 49, too: 7+11+31. Can all odd numbers be written as three prime numbers added together? The Weak Goldbach Conjecture says that they can, as long as they’re bigger than five. (video)
11 and 13 are primes that are only two apart. So are 107 and 109. Can we find infinitely many such prime pairs? That’s called the Twin Prime Conjecture. And if we can’t, are there infinitely many prime pairs that are at most, say, 100 apart? (video, with a song!)
People have been wondering about these questions for hundreds of years. Last month, Harald Helfgott showed that the Weak Goldbach Conjecture is true! And Yitang “Tom” Zhang showed that there are infinitely many prime pairs that are at most 70,000,000 apart! You can find lots of details about these discoveries and links to even more in this roundup by Evelyn Lamb.
What’s been particularly fabulous about Tom’s result about gaps between primes is that other mathematicians have started to work together to make it even better. Tom originally showed that there are an infinite number of prime pairs that are at most 70,000,000 apart. Not nearly as cute as being just two apart—but as has been remarked, 70,000,000 is a lot closer to two than it is to infinity! That gap of 70,000,000 has slowly been getting smaller as mathematicians have made improvements to Tom’s argument. You can see the results of their efforts on the polymath project. As of this writing, they’ve got the gap size narrowed down to 12,006—you can track the decreasing values down the page in the H column. So there are infinitely many pairs of primes that are at most 12,006 apart! What amazing progress!
Two names that you’ll see in the list of contributors to the effort are Andrew Sutherland and Scott Morrison. Andrew is a computational number theorist at MIT and Scott has done research in knot theory and is at the Australian National University. They’ve improved arguments and sharpened figures to lower the prime gap value H. They’ve contributed by doing things like using a hybrid Schinzel/greedy (or “greedy-greedy”) sieve. Well, I know what a sieve is and what a greedy algorithm is, but believe me, this is very complicated stuff that’s way over my head. Even so, I love getting to watch the way that these mathematicians bounce ideas off each other, like on this thread.
Andrew and Scott have agreed to answer some of your questions about their involvement in this research about prime gaps and their lives as mathematicians. I know I have some questions I’m curious about! You can submit your questions in the form below:
I can think of only two times in my life where I was so captivated by mathematics in the making as I am by this prime gaps adventure. Andrew Wiles’s proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem was on the fringe of my awareness when it came out in 1993—its twentieth anniversary of his proof just happened, in fact. The result still felt very new and exciting when I read Fermat’s Enigma a couple of years later. Grigori Perelman’s proof of the Poincare Conjecture made headlines just after I moved to New York City seven years ago. I still remember reading a big article about it in the New York Times, complete with a picture of a rabbit with a grid on it.
This work on prime gaps is even more exciting to me than those, I think. Maybe it’s partly because I have more mathematical experience now, but I think it’s mostly because lots of people are helping the story to unfold and we can watch it happen!
Next up, I ran across a great site the other week when I was researching the idea of a “cut and slide” process. The site is called Mad Maths and the page I landed on was all about beautiful dissections of simple shapes, like circles and squares. I’ve picked out one that I find especially charming to feature here, but you might enjoy seeing them all. The site also contains all kinds of neat puzzles and problems to try out. I’m always a fan of congruent pieces problems, and these paper-folding puzzles are really tricky and original. (Or maybe, origaminal!) You’ll might especially like them if you liked Folds.
Finally, we previously posted about Matt Parker’s great video problem about a princess hiding in a castle. Well, Christian Perfect of The Aperiodical has created an applet that will allow you to explore this problem—plus, it’ll let you build and try out other castles for the princess to hide in. Super cool! Will I ever be able to find the princess in this crazy star castle I designed?!
And as summer gets into full swing, the other kind of castle that’s on my mind is the sandcastle. Take a peek at these photos of geometric sandcastles by Calvin Seibert. What shapes can you find? Maybe Calvin’s creations will inspire your next beach creation!