I tried a new joke in class recently; it worked gloriously.

I wrote on the board a mathematical conjecture that has yet to be proven or disproven. To emphasize that nobody knows the answer yet despite centuries of effort, I told the class, “If you figure this out, call me and call me collect,” writing my office phone number on the board.

To complete the joke, I said, “Yeah, this is crazy. So here’s my number…”

I thoroughly enjoyed my students’ coruscating groans before I could complete the punch line.

The twin prime conjecture (see here, here and here for more information) asserts that there are infinitely many primes that have a difference of 2. For example:

3 and 5 are twin primes;

5 and 7 are twin primes;

11 and 13 are twin primes;

17 and 19 are twin primes;

29 and 31 are twin primes; etc.

While most mathematicians believe the twin prime conjecture is correct, an explicit proof has not been found. Indeed, this has been one of the most popular unsolved problems in mathematics — not necessarily because it’s important, but for the curiosity that a conjecture so simply stated has eluded conquest by the world’s best mathematicians.

Still, research continues, and some major progress has been made in the past few years. (I like sharing this story with my students to convince them that not everything that can be known about mathematics has been figure out yet — a misconception encouraged by the structure of the secondary curriculum — and that research continues to this day.) Specifically, it was recently shown that, for some integer that is less than 70 million, there are infinitely many pairs of primes that differ by .

In this series, I’m compiling some of the quips and one-liners that I’ll use with my students to hopefully make my lessons more memorable for them.

Every once in a while, I’ll discuss something in class which is at least tangentially related to an unsolved problems in mathematics. For example, when discussing infinite series, I’ll ask my students to debate whether or not this series converges:

where the denominators are all perfect squares. I’ll have my students guess about whether or not this one converges. It turns out that it does, and the answer is exactly what my students should expect the answer to be, .

Then I tell my students, that was a joke (usually to relieved laughter).

Next, I’ll put up the series

,

where the denominators are all perfect cubes. I’ll have my students guess about whether or not this one converges. Usually someone will see that this one has to converge since the previous one converged and the terms of this one are pairwise smaller than the previous series — an intuitive use of the Dominated Convergence Test. Then, I’ll ask, what does this converge to?

The answer is, nobody knows. It can be calculated to very high precision with modern computers, of course, but it’s unknown whether there’s a simple expression for this sum.

So, concluding the story whenever I present an unsolved problem, I’ll tell my students,

If you figure out the answer, call me, and call me collect.

I’m doing something that I should have done a long time ago: collecting a series of posts into one single post.

When I was researching for my series of posts on conditional convergence, especially examples related to the constant , the reference Gamma: Exploring Euler’s Constant by Julian Havil kept popping up. Finally, I decided to splurge for the book, expecting a decent popular account of this number. After all, I’m a professional mathematician, and I took a graduate level class in analytic number theory. In short, I don’t expect to learn a whole lot when reading a popular science book other than perhaps some new pedagogical insights.

Boy, was I wrong. As I turned every page, it seemed I hit a new factoid that I had not known before.

In this series, I’d like to compile some of my favorites along with the page numbers in the book — while giving the book a very high recommendation.

The Riemann Hypothesis (see here, here, and here) is perhaps the most famous (and also most important) unsolved problems in mathematics. Gamma (page 207) provides a way of writing down this conjecture in a form that only uses notation that is commonly taught in high school:

If and for some pair of real numbers and , then .

As noted in the book, “It seems extraordinary that the most famous unsolved problem in the whole of mathematics can be phrased so that it involves the simplest of mathematical ideas: summation, trigonometry, logarithms, and [square roots].”

When I researching for my series of posts on conditional convergence, especially examples related to the constant , the reference Gamma: Exploring Euler’s Constant by Julian Havil kept popping up. Finally, I decided to splurge for the book, expecting a decent popular account of this number. After all, I’m a professional mathematician, and I took a graduate level class in analytic number theory. In short, I don’t expect to learn a whole lot when reading a popular science book other than perhaps some new pedagogical insights.

Boy, was I wrong. As I turned every page, it seemed I hit a new factoid that I had not known before.

In this series, I’d like to compile some of my favorites — while giving the book a very high recommendation.

[A] proposed solution must be published in a refereed mathematics publication of worldwide repute… and it must also have general acceptance in the mathematics community two years after.

Of the eight problems on the list, one (the Poincare conjecture) has been solved so far. Incredibly, the mathematician who produced the proof turned down the $1,000,000. He was also awarded the Fields Medal, considered the Nobel Prize of mathematics, but he refused that as well.

The Millennium Problems parallel the famous 23 Hilbert problems posed by eminent mathematician David Hilbert in 1900. The Hilbert problems were unsolved at the time and were posed as a challenge to the mathematicians of the 20th century. These problems certainly generated a lot of buzz in the mathematical community, and most have been solved since 1900. (Sadly, none of the solvers won $1,000,000 for their work!)

What does this have to do with Minesweeper?

One of the problems is the famed P vs. NP problem. From Clay Mathematics:

Suppose that you are organizing housing accommodations for a group of four hundred university students. Space is limited and only one hundred of the students will receive places in the dormitory. To complicate matters, the Dean has provided you with a list of pairs of incompatible students, and requested that no pair from this list appear in your final choice. This is an example of what computer scientists call an NP-problem, since it is easy to check if a given choice of one hundred students proposed by a coworker is satisfactory (i.e., no pair taken from your coworker’s list also appears on the list from the Dean’s office), however the task of generating such a list from scratch seems to be so hard as to be completely impractical. Indeed, the total number of ways of choosing one hundred students from the four hundred applicants is greater than the number of atoms in the known universe! Thus no future civilization could ever hope to build a supercomputer capable of solving the problem by brute force; that is, by checking every possible combination of 100 students. However, this apparent difficulty may only reflect the lack of ingenuity of your programmer. In fact, one of the outstanding problems in computer science is determining whether questions exist whose answer can be quickly checked, but which require an impossibly long time to solve by any direct procedure. Problems like the one listed above certainly seem to be of this kind, but so far no one has managed to prove that any of them really are so hard as they appear, i.e., that there really is no feasible way to generate an answer with the help of a computer. Stephen Cook and Leonid Levin formulated the P (i.e., easy to find) versus NP (i.e., easy to check) problem independently in 1971.

In 2000, Richard Kaye (University of Birmingham, UK) made connected Minesweeper to the P vs. NP problem. Famed mathematical journalist Ian Stewart did a very nice job of describing the connection between the two, so I’ll simply refer to his post for a detailed description. Dr. Kaye’s website also gives a lot of information about the connection.

In a recent class with my future secondary math teachers, we had a fascinating discussion concerning how a teacher should respond to the following question from a student:

Is it ever possible to prove a statement or theorem by proving a special case of the statement or theorem?

Usually, the answer is no. In this series of posts, we’ve already seen that a conjecture could be true for the first 40 cases or even the first yet ultimately prove false for all cases.

For the next few posts, I thought I’d share a few of the most famous unsolved problems in mathematics… and just how much computational work has been done to check for a counterexample.

4. The Riemann hypothesis (see here, here, and here for more information) is perhaps the outstanding unsolved problem in pure mathematics, and a prize of $1 million has been offered for its proof.

The Riemann zeta function is defined by

for complex numbers with real part greater than 1. For example,

and

The definition of the Riemann zeta function can be extended to all complex numbers (except a pole at ) by the integral

and also analytic continuation.

The Riemann hypothesis conjectures to all solutions of the equation other than negative even integers occur on the line . At present, it is known that the first 10 trillion solutions are on this line, so that every solution with is on this line. Of course, that’s not a proof that all solutions are on this line.

A full description of known results concerning the Riemann hypothesis requires much more than a single post. I’ll refer the interested reader to the links above from MathWorld, Wikipedia, and Claymath and the references embedded in those links. An excellent book for the layman concerning the Riemann hypothesis is Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics, by John Derbyshire.

In a recent class with my future secondary math teachers, we had a fascinating discussion concerning how a teacher should respond to the following question from a student:

Is it ever possible to prove a statement or theorem by proving a special case of the statement or theorem?

Usually, the answer is no. In this series of posts, we’ve already seen that a conjecture could be true for the first 40 cases or even the first cases yet ultimately prove false for all cases.

For the next few posts, I thought I’d share a few of the most famous unsolved problems in mathematics… and just how much computational work has been done to check for a counterexample.

3. The Collatz conjecture (see here and here for more information) is an easily stated unsolved problem that can be understood by most fourth and fifth graders. Restated from a previous post:

Here’s the statement of the problem.

Start with any positive integer.

If the integer is even, divide it by . If it’s odd, multiply it by and then add .

Repeat until (and if) you reach .

Here’s the question: Does this sequence eventually reach no matter the starting value? Or is there a number out there that you could use as a starting value that has a sequence that never reaches ?

For every integer less than , this sequence returns to 1. Of course, this is not a proof that the conjecture will hold for every integer.

In a recent class with my future secondary math teachers, we had a fascinating discussion concerning how a teacher should respond to the following question from a student:

Is it ever possible to prove a statement or theorem by proving a special case of the statement or theorem?

Usually, the answer is no. In this series of posts, we’ve already seen that a conjecture could be true for the first 40 cases or even the first cases yet ultimately prove false for all cases.

For the next few posts, I thought I’d share a few of the most famous unsolved problems in mathematics… and just how much computational work has been done to check for a counterexample.

2. The twin prime conjecture (see here and here for more information) asserts that there are infinitely many primes that have a difference of 2. For example:

3 and 5 are twin primes;

5 and 7 are twin primes;

11 and 13 are twin primes;

17 and 19 are twin primes;

29 and 31 are twin primes; etc.

While most mathematicians believe the twin prime conjecture is correct, an explicit proof has not been found. The largest known twin primes are

,

numbers which have 200,700 decimal digits. Also, there are 808,675,888,577,436 twin prime pairs less than .

Most mathematicians also believe that there are infinitely many cousin primes, which differ by 4:

3 and 7 are cousin primes;

7 and 11 are cousin primes;

13 and 17 are cousin primes;

19 and 23 are cousin primes;

37 and 41 are cousin primes; etc.

Most mathematicians also believe that there are infinitely many sexy primes (no, I did not make that name up), which differ by 6:

5 and 11 are sexy primes;

7 and 13 are sexy primes;

11 and 17 are sexy primes;

13 and 19 are sexy primes;

17 and 23 are sexy primes; etc.

(Parenthetically, a “sexy” prime is probably the most unfortunate name in mathematics ever since Paul Dirac divided a bracket into a “bra” and a “ket,” thereby forever linking women’s underwear to quantum mechanics.)

While it is unknown if there are infinitely many twin primes, it was recently shown — in 2013 — that, for some integer that is less than 70 million, there are infinitely many pairs of primes that differ by . In 2014, this upper bound was reduced to 246. Furthermore, if a certain other conjecture is true, the bound has been reduced to 6. In other words, there are infinitely many twin primes or cousin primes or sexy primes… but, at this moment, we don’t know which one (or ones) is infinite.

In November 2014, Dr. Terence Tao of the UCLA Department of Mathematics was interviewed on the Colbert Report to discuss the twin prime conjecture… and he does a good job explaining to Stephen Colbert how we can know one of the three categories is infinite without knowing which category it is.