UNH lecturer stuns the math world

Last modified: Sunday, May 26, 2013
In the distraction of the scandal-fever swirling through Washington and the news media, you might have missed the announcement the other day that one of the great puzzles of number theory had been solved.

What makes the news most fascinating is that the solver isn’t on the faculty of a top university and wasn’t known until this month to others who work in the field. He is a Chinese immigrant in his 50s named Yitang Zhang, a onetime accountant and part-time lecturer at the University of New Hampshire who used to make sandwiches in a Subway shop. Said one leading number theorist: “Basically, no one knows him.”

Cue the agents and film producers.

Because the story gets better. Zhang’s accomplishment tracks our romantic vision of the dedicated genius working alone in his garage. The truth is even more unlikely.

Zhang hit upon the crucial idea not in his garage but at a friend’s house in Colorado, where he had gone to clear his head. He was sitting in the backyard, waiting to leave for a concert. (Imagine it cinematically: Zhang skips the concert, ignoring the entreaties of his skeptical hosts, and refuses to budge from the yard, where he sits all through the frigid Rocky Mountain night, feverishly scratching equations into tree bark.)

The achievement that has inspired such awe among mathematicians is Zhang’s proof of the “weak” form of the twin prime conjecture – a proof so strong that he was recently asked to present it to an audience at Harvard University. This isn’t the place to explain what the twin prime conjecture is, or why it has a strong and weak form, or even why the solution has posed such a challenge.

The fascinating part is how Zhang succeeded where others had failed. There was no flash of genius, no invention of an entirely new methodology. He saw the promise in an approach that others had abandoned, and – mirabile dictu! – had enough faith in his idea to stick with it until everything clicked. (Note to producers: Be sure to write in mocking younger colleagues, who think the old guy is past it. See if Benedict whatshisname – the Star Trek guy – is available.)

The story’s had a bit of coverage, but not nearly what it deserves. The media by and large aren’t terribly excited about science these days. Technology, sure – albeit generally on the very personal level. An exciting new smartphone application will get commentators salivating, and smiling news anchors will report the results of the latest clinical study on the efficacy of a popular drug, whether or not they understand the data.

Pure science, however, discovery for discovery’s sake – in short, using our brains because we have them – doesn’t get a lot of airtime. (Except when thrillingly dangerous, like the rumors a few years back that the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland, might create a black hole that would destroy the world. The world, having survived, immediately lost interest.)

I’ve noted before that we may be losing a generation of pure scientists. It has become a truism that many of the brightest science, technology, engineering and math majors are passing up graduate study for law or business school. I am old enough to remember when young people looked with admiration and even envy on their gifted peers who planned to be scientists. Nowadays, a facility with numbers is a highly valued skill, and the returns on careers in law and finance dwarf what they could earn in the academy or the research laboratory. Whenever I’m asked how the students have changed over my three decades of law teaching, I point to the growing disproportion of science majors.

The problem isn’t the public’s lack of scientific literacy. Veteran science writer Daniel S. Greenberg, in his 2001 book Science, Money, and Politics, put the point this way: “Science, democracy, and prosperity are said to be at risk, though, mysteriously, all have spread robustly despite the dearth of public understanding.” The problem is the lack of serious public interest.

We need to recover what the late Carl Sagan called “the romance of science.” We can do this in part by coming to appreciate the human side. The media can do their part by paying more attention to stories like that of Yitang Zhang – “Tom” to his friends and students – because there is human interest everywhere, if we but choose to look. For example, everybody knows that nobody does important work in mathematics after 40, the age at which one becomes ineligible for the Fields Medal, often referred to as the Nobel Prize of the field. And Zhang is in his 50s, and used to work at Subway, and – as I said, the story writes itself.

Now, I know you have to get back to the scandals of the moment. Before you do, let’s follow the romance of pure science one act further: Zhang says his great breakthrough during his sojourn in Colorado came on July 3. Hmm. Memo to the producers: Can we push that back a day, and set fireworks behind his head, something like what Baz Luhrmann did for our first sight of Gatsby? Just a thought.

(Stephen L. Carter is professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama,” and the novel “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.”)