How Yitang “Tom” Zhang Proved a Theorem That Had Stumped Mathematicians for a Century

Yitang “Tom” Zhang spent the seven years following the completion of his Ph.D. in mathematics floating between Kentucky and Queens, working for a chain of Subway restaurants, and doing odd accounting work. Now he is on a lecture tour that includes stops at Harvard, Columbia, Caltech, and Princeton, is fielding multiple professorship offers, and spends two hours a day dealing with the press. That’s because, in April, Zhang proved a theorem that had eluded mathematicians for a century or more. When we called Zhang to see what he thought of being thrust into the spotlight, we found a shy, modest man, genuinely disinterested in all the fuss.

Mathematicians don’t tend to get famous. That’s probably because it’s hard for the public to grasp what they do. The importance of the light bulb, penicillin, or DNA is easy to understand, and Edison, Fleming, and Crick are household names. The likes of Euler, Riemann, or Dirichlet seem, by comparison, outside of mainstream awareness.

But mathematicians also star in some of the most dramatic stories in science. The lone, unrecognized genius laboring away on a groundbreaking theory over many years is more fiction than fact for most of modern science—but not in mathematics. Andrew Wiles’ 1995 proof of Fermat’s last theorem, which had defied all efforts to prove it for more than 300 years, was made all the more dramatic by the secrecy with which it was conducted. But Wiles was already ensconced in the elite circles of mathematics when he did his work.

Not only did Zhang work in relative secrecy, he was also a complete unknown. He had found work as a lecturer at the University of New Hampshire (UNH) in 1999, eight years after he finished his Ph.D., with the help of connections at his undergraduate institution, Peking University. Then, in April of this year, Zhang announced a proof that cracked open a century-old problem in mathematics, called the twin prime conjecture. “It was like climbing Everest,” says Ayalur Krishnan, a math professor at CUNY’s Kingsborough community college.

Read the whole article here: How Yitang “Tom” Zhang Proved a Theorem That Had Stumped Mathematicians for a Century

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