Science

Did a mathematician really solve a million-dollar math problem?

Brett Molina
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Sir Michael Francis Atiyah

A world-renowned retired mathematician claims he has proof to solve a math problem dating back to 1859, potentially worth \$1 million.

Michael Atiyah, a mathematician who has won several awards including the Fields Medal in 1966, spoke during the Heidelberg Laureate Forum, an event created to connect experts in fields such as science and math with the younger generation.

During a Monday speech in Heidelberg, Germany, Atiyah claimed to have a potential solution to a problem called the Riemann Hypothesis.

"It's so difficult nobody's proved it, so why should anyone prove it now, unless of course you have a totally new idea," said Atiyah.

According to the Clay Mathematics Institute, the hypothesis named after German mathematician Bernhard Riemann centers on how prime numbers — which can only be divided by one or themselves — are distributed and how frequently they occur. Riemann's formula works for the first 10 trillion solutions, said the institute, but not for every single potential prime number.

The problem is so difficult to prove the institute is offering a Millennium Prize of \$1 million to any one who can solve it. However, to claim the prize, the solution must appear in a mathematics journal of "worldwide repute" and be generally accepted by the math community two years after publication.

Atiyah said based on earlier work from mathematicians Friedrich Hirzebruch and John von Neumann, Riemann's original hypothesis on how prime numbers are distributed is, in fact, correct.

However, many math experts are skeptical about Atiyah's proof. "It is simply too vague and unspecific," Jørgen Veisdal, an economist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, told the magazine Science.

"The Riemann hypothesis is a notoriously difficult problem," said Nicholas Jackson at Warwick University in the United Kingdom. in an interview with New Scientist. "Lots of other top-rate mathematicians have nearly but not quite managed to prove it over the years, only for a subtle flaw in the proof to become apparent."

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