The top 10 mathematical achievements of the last 5ish years, maybe

By on 03/02/2016

I have recently been going through my book Maths 1001 making updates for a forthcoming foreign edition (of which more in future). So I have been looking over mathematical developments since approximately 2009. Thus, I present ten major developments in the subject since around then, arranged arbitrarily in ascending order of top-ness. [Originally appeared here]

By Richard Elwes

10. Mochizuki’s claimed proof of the abc conjecture.   The countdown kicks off on an awkward note. If Shinichi Mochizuki’s 2012 claimed proof of the abc conjecture had gained widespread acceptance, it would definitely top this list. As it is, it remains in limbo, to the enormous frustration of everyone involved.

9. The weak Goldbach conjecture. “From 7 onwards, every odd number is the sum of three primes.” We have known since 1937 that this holds for all large enough odd numbers, but in 2013 Harald Helfgott brought the threshold down to 1030, and separately with David Platt checked odd numbers up to that limit by computer.

8. Ngô Bảo Châu’s proof of the Fundamental Lemma. Bending the rules to scrape in (time-wise) is this 2009 proof of a terrifyingly technical but highly important plank of the Langlands Program.

7. Seventeen Sudoku Clues. In 2012, McGuire, Tugemann, and Civario proved that the smallest number of clues which uniquely determine a Sudoku puzzle is 17. (Although not every collection of 17 clues yields a unique solution, their theorem establishes that there can never be a valid Sudoku puzzle with only 16 clues.)

6. The Growth of Univalent Foundations/ Homotopy Type Theory. This new approach to the foundations of mathematics, led by Vladimir Voevodsky, is attracting huge attention. Apart from its inherent mathematical appeal, it promises to recast swathes of higher mathematics in a language more accessible to computerised proof-assistants.

5. Untriangulatable spaces. In sixth position is the stunning discovery, by Ciprian Manolescu, ofuntriangilatable manifolds in all dimensions from 5 upwards.

4. The Socolar–Taylor tile. Penrose tiles, famously, are sets of tiles which can tile the plane, but only aperiodically. It was an open question, for many years, whether it is possible to achieve the same effect with just one tile. Then Joan Taylor and Joshua Socolar found one (pictured above).

3. Completion of the Flyspeck project. In 1998, Thomas Hales announced a proof of the classicKepler conjecture on the most efficient way to stack cannon-balls. Unfortunately, his proof was so long and computationally involved that the referees assigned to verify it couldn’t complete the task. So Hales and his team set about it themselves, using the Isabelle and HOL Light computational proof assistants. The result is not only a milestone in discrete geometry, but also in automated reasoning.

2. Partition numbers. In how many ways can a positive integer be written as a sum of smaller integers? In 2011, Ken Ono and Jan Bruinier provided the long-sought answer.

1. Bounded gaps between primes. It’s no real surprise to find that the top spot is taken by Yitang Zhang’s wonderful 2013 result that there is some number n, below 70 million, such that there are infinitely many pairs of consecutive primes exactly n apart. The subsequent flurry of activity saw James Maynard, and a Polymath Project organised by Terence Tao, bring the bound down to 246.

But, but,…?!

Where’s Hairer’s work on the KPZ equation? What about Friedman’s new examples of concrete incompleteness?! What can I say? It’s just for fun, folks. If you think I’ve got it horribly wrong, then feel free to compile your own lists. (The real answer for such things being left out is that I couldn’t easily update my book to include them.) And now…

Bonus feature! Progress in computational verifications and searches

In no particular order:

  • The simple continued fraction of π has now been computed to the first 15 billion terms by Eric Weisstein, up from 100 million.
  • The decimal expansion of π has been computed to 13.3 trillion digits, up from 2.69999999 trillion.
  • The search for the perfect cuboid: if one exists, one of its sides must be at least 3 trillion units long, up from 9 billion.
  •  Goldbach’s conjecture has been verified for even numbers up to 4 × 1018 by Oliveira e Silva, up from 1018.
  • The largest known prime, and the 48th known Mersenne prime (up from 47), is 257885161-1, up from 243112609-1.
  • The longest known Optimal Golomb Ruler is now 27 notches long (up from 26):
    (0, 3, 15, 41, 66, 95, 97, 106, 142, 152, 220, 221, 225, 242, 295, 330, 338, 354, 382, 388, 402, 415, 486, 504, 523, 546, 553)
  • The most impressive feat of integer-factorisation using classical computers, is that of the 232-digit number RSA-768:1230186684530117755130494958384962720772853569595334792197322452 1517264005072636575187452021997864693899564749427740638459251925 5732630345373154826850791702612214291346167042921431160222124047 9274737794080665351419597459856902143413into two 116 digit primes3347807169895689878604416984821269081770479498371376856891243138 8982883793878002287614711652531743087737814467999489
    3674604366679959042824463379962795263227915816434308764267603228 3815739666511279233373417143396810270092798736308917.(The previous record was the 200 digit semiprime RSA-200.)
  • The most impressive feat of integer-factorisation using a quantum computer is that of 56,153=233 × 241. The previous record was 15.
  • The Collatz Conjecture has been verified for numbers beyond 2 × 1021. The previous record was 5.76 × 1018. (However, this has happened via a patchwork of distributed computing projects, and I have not been able to establish with any certainty that every number up to the new higher limit has been checked. I encourage someone in this community to organise all the results in a single location.)

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