Thursday, July 2, 2009

Prime and Prejudice

A few years back, a student of mine gave me a book on prime number theory because he knew I liked math. Okay, he was ten and he picked out a book about Bernhard Riemann and the greatest unsolved problem in mathematics. Oh, his dad is researcher at Johns Hopkins and was voted top ten smartest Americans alive. And his mom has two doctorates and is a professor at Hopkins, too. What a bunch of slackers...

So I get this book and I'm gonna' read it, damn it. How hard can it be, honestly? I cruised through the first eighteen pages or so; the first chapter is essentially about a theoretical card trick and convergent series. But by chapter two, I start to dribble and drool a bit. The author gets into the history of mathematics in 18th century Germany and little anecdotes such as "Ah, shucks, wasn't Gauss a cut up in class! Oh, don't talk to me about Euler." Throw in a sentence like, "N / pi (N) - log N. (Pronounced "N over pi of N tends asymptotically to log N" by page 45 and I might as well be reading sanskrit. But... I. Am. Gonna'. Finish. The. Book. Damn. It.

Three years later, I am finally done with the freakin' book. Guess what? I read the whole damn book only to find out that the author wasn't kidding - the problem is still unsolved. Oh, what a buzz kill. Berhard Reimann dedicated his life to this problem and he died from an ear infection or something tragic, and he never did come up with an answer (proof...) to whether or not there are infinite prime numbers. Oh, sucks being him. I spent bits and pieces of three years reading about his struggles but I am not dead, at least. But I wanted the Disney ending to the story, I must admit. For Riemann and me. For him, peer recognition and fame (...he was loved by an adoring wife...). For me, enlightenment (...I am loved by an adoring wife...). We both were ROBBED!

Then I reread the second to last chapter. The autor wrote, "As Andrew Odlyzko told me, "Either it is true, or else it isn't. One day we shall know. I have no idea what the consequences will be, and I don't believe anyone else has, either. I am certain, though, that they will be tremendous. At the end of the hunt, our understanding will be transformed. Until then, the joy and fascination is in the hunt itself, and -- for those of us not equipped to ride -- in observing the energy, resolution, and ingenuity of the hunters. Wir mussen wissen, wir werden wissen."

We must know. We will know. In the meantime, admire the passion of others, even if they use really big words.

1 comment:

  1. My eyes rolled back in my head at just that one sentence. I admire your fortitude in finishing the book - even if you did get robbed in the end!


Please don't take me too seriously.