Michael Atiyah is an acclaimed mathematician who has won some of the top prizes in his field, and he now claims to have cracked a 159-year-old problem called the Riemann hypothesis. If he's right, Atiyah wins even more acclaim—plus a $1 million prize. But before the bubbly is cracked, the 89-year-old has to convince fellow mathematicians of his feat, and they sound very skeptical. The details:
- The announcement: In a speech in Germany Monday, the retired University of Edinburgh mathematician said he had found a "simple proof" of the problem. “Nobody believes any proof of the Riemann hypothesis because it is so difficult," he said, per Live Science. "Nobody has proved it, so why should anybody prove it now? Unless, of course, you have a totally new idea.” Atiyah says he does.
- The actual problem: The hypothesis, put forth by mathematician Bernhard Riemann in 1859, involves the distribution of prime numbers—hence its nickname of "the riddle of the primes." Riemann thought he figured out a pattern, and his formula works for the first 10 trillion solutions. Impressive, but that still means it's "unsolved," per the Clay Mathematics Institute, which gets into the mathematical nitty gritty. Anyone who can prove the hypothesis to infinity will collect a $1 million Millennium Prize award from the institute.
- Hang on: “What (Atiyah) showed in the presentation is very unlikely to be anything like a proof of the Riemann hypothesis as we know it,” Jørgen Veisdal of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology tells Science. “It is simply too vague and unspecific.” But Veisdal said he has to study the written proof in order to be sure.
- Similar note: New Scientist also talks to mathematicians and describes the reaction as one of "cautious skepticism." Few would comment publicly, perhaps out of fear of offending Atiyah.
- Spotty record: Atiyah won the Fields Medal in 1966 and another top math award, the Abel Prize, in 2004, but Science notes that he's had a spottier record in retirement. He announced in 2016 that he'd solved another famous math problem, but his proof eventually fizzled. The same thing happened the following year with another famous problem.
- 2-year rule: Atiyah is aware of the skepticism and fine with it. "People will complain and grumble, but that’s because they’re resistant to the idea that an old man might have come up with an entirely new method," he says. Nor was he taking full credit: He says his proof his based on the work of mathematicians John von Neumann and Friedrich Hirzebruch. To collect the $1 million prize, Atiyah needs to have his proof published in a reputable math journal and have it be widely accepted two years after publication.
- Simpler answer: Perhaps it's 42?
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