The Biggest Problem in Mathematics Is Finally a Step Closer to Being Solved Scientific American

Nineteenth-century German mathematician Bernhard Riemann proposed a way to deal with this peculiarity that explains how prime numbers are distributed

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The Riemann hypothesis is the most important open question in number theory—if not all of mathematics. It has occupied experts for more than 160 years. And the problem appeared both in mathematician David Hilbert’s groundbreaking speech from 1900 and among the “Millennium Problems” formulated a century later. The person who solves it will win a million-dollar prize.

But the Riemann hypothesis is a tough nut to crack. Despite decades of effort, the interest of many experts and the cash reward, there has been little progress. Now mathematicians Larry Guth of the

Massachusetts Institute of Technology and James Maynard of the University of Oxford have posted a sensational new finding on the preprint server arXiv.org. In the paper, “the authors improve a result that seemed insurmountable for more than 50 years,” says number theorist Valentin Blomer of the University of Bonn in Germany.

Other experts agree. The work is “a remarkable breakthrough,” mathematician and Fields Medalist Terence Tao wrote on Mastodon , “though still very far from fully resolving this conjecture.”

The Riemann hypothesis concerns the basic building blocks of natural numbers: prime numbers, values only divisible by 1 and themselves. Examples include 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, and so on.

Every other number, such as 15, can be clearly broken down into a product of prime numbers: 15 = 3 x 5. The problem is that the prime numbers do not seem to follow a simple pattern and instead appear randomly among the natural numbers. Nineteenth-century German mathematician Bernhard Riemann proposed a way to deal with this peculiarity that explains how prime numbers are distributed on the number line—at least from a statistical point of view.

Proving this conjecture would provide mathematicians with nothing less than a kind of “periodic table of numbers.” Just as the basic building blocks of matter (such as quarks, electrons and photons) help us to understand the universe and our world, prime numbers also play an important role, not just in number theory but in almost all areas of mathematics.

There are now numerous theorems based on the Riemann conjecture. Proof of this conjecture would prove many other theorems as well—yet another incentive to tackle this stubborn problem.

Interest in prime numbers goes back thousands of years. Euclid proved as early as 300 BCE that there are an infinite number of prime numbers. And although interest in prime numbers persisted, it was not until the 18th century that any further significant findings were made about these basic building blocks.

As a 15-year-old, physicist Carl Friedrich Gauss realized that the number of prime numbers decreases along the number line. His so-called prime number theorem (not proven until 100 years later) states that approximately n / ln( n ) prime numbers appear in the interval from 0 to n . In other words, the prime number theorem offers mathematicians a way of estimating the typical distribution of primes along a chunk of the number line….

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