Master of math

November 08, 2016

Yitang Zhang may not be a household name, but in the world of mathematics, the UC Santa Barbara professor is somewhat of a celebrity. His seminal work on the Twin Prime Conjecture made him famous in the field, earning him a host of prizes, including a MacArthur Fellowship.

Zhang's most recent accolade is the Qiu Shi Outstanding Scientist Award, which he recently received in Beijing from the Qiu Shi Science & Technologies Foundation. The institution's primary mission is to promote scientific and technological progress in China by recognizing and rewarding successful Chinese scientists and scholars.

In 2013, Zhang, a number theorist, submitted a proof to the "Annals of Mathematics" that established the first finite bound on gaps between prime numbers. So began his ascent to mathematics renown.

"Professor Zhang's breakthrough paper, 'Bounded Gaps Between Primes,' has solved a pure mathematics problem attempted by mathematicians for more than 150 years," said UCSB Chancellor Henry T. Yang. "The paper is so beautiful that some mathematicians have described the experience of reading it as similar to enjoying music and art.

"Even after receiving several of the world's top awards in mathematics over the past few years, Professor Zhang has remained extremely humble and low-key," Yang added. "Our campus is honored and fortunate to have had him join our math faculty last year as an outstanding teacher of both graduate and undergraduate courses."

Prime numbers can be divided only by themselves and one. With the exception of the number 2, all are odd, which means the closest a pair of prime numbers can be is two.

The question at the heart of the Twin Prime Conjecture is whether "twins" -- like prime numbers 29 and 31 -- occur in the reaches of infinity. Zhang made major progress toward determining that when he found a large but fixed finite "gap" between prime numbers that occurs infinitely often.

"By mathematical standards, Professor Zhang is a very high-profile fellow," said Darren Long, chair of UCSB's Department of Mathematics. "He did a very nice piece of math, which has attracted a lot of visibility. That's good for our graduate program, and I hope that some excellent graduate students will want to come and work with him."

Long explained Zhang's discovery using two buses arriving 15 minutes apart to represent the smallest difference possible between a pair of prime numbers. The two buses equal the closest pair of prime numbers.

"What Zhang showed was that although you might have to wait five hours or 24 hours for a bus, there is an infinite occurrence of buses that are 15 minutes apart," Long explained. "No matter how long you wait, there eventually will be a pair of buses 15 minutes apart. And that will keep on happening even though the gap between these gaps is going to be very long."

According to Long, Zhang's work on the Twin Prime Conjecture was the first piece of major progress in the direction of solving such a complex theorem. "Once the pioneer has broken through, people often make great improvements very quickly," he said. "While the number Zhang got was gigantic, it's now down to something relatively small. However, the holy grail is two."

Zhang's breakthrough earned him the 2013 Ostrowski Prize, the 2014 Frank Nelson Cole Prize in Number Theory and election to the Academia Sinica in 2014. He became a faculty member at UCSB in 2015 following a 16-year teaching career at the University of New Hampshire. Zhang has been profiled in The New Yorker and celebrated in the documentary "Counting from Infinity."

Last winter at UCSB, he taught a popular graduate seminar on analytic number theory, and this fall he is teaching an undergraduate course in upper-division algebra or group theory.

The Qiu Shi award -- qiu shi means "quest for truth" -- was established in 1994 by the late Hong Kong industrialist and philanthropist Cha Chi Ming. Previous winners include Tu Youyou, who later received the Nobel Prize in medicine for the discovery of the malaria drug artemisinin, which has saved millions of lives.
-end-


University of California - Santa Barbara

Related Mathematics Articles from Brightsurf:

A new method for boosting the learning of mathematics
How can mathematics learning in primary school be facilitated? UNIGE has developed an intervention to promote the learning of math in school.

Could mathematics help to better treat cancer?
Impaired information processing may prevent cells from perceiving their environment correctly; they then start acting in an uncontrolled way and this can lead to the development of cancer.

People can see beauty in complex mathematics, study shows
Ordinary people see beauty in complex mathematical arguments in the same way they can appreciate a beautiful landscape painting or a piano sonata.

Improving geothermal HVAC systems with mathematics
Sustainable heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems, such as those that harness low-enthalpy geothermal energy, are needed to reduce collective energy use and mitigate the continued effects of a warming climate.

How the power of mathematics can help assess lung function
Researchers at the University of Southampton have developed a new computational way of analyzing X-ray images of lungs, which could herald a breakthrough in the diagnosis and assessment of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other lung diseases.

Mathematics pushes innovation in 4-D printing
New mathematical results will provide a potential breakthrough in the design and the fabrication of the next generation of morphable materials.

More democracy through mathematics
For democratic elections to be fair, voting districts must have similar sizes.

How to color a lizard: From biology to mathematics
Skin color patterns in animals arise from microscopic interactions among colored cells that obey equations discovered by Alan Turing.

US educators awarded for exemplary teaching in mathematics
Janet Heine Barnett, Caren Diefenderfer, and Tevian Dray were named the 2017 Deborah and Franklin Tepper Haimo Award winners by the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) for their teaching effectiveness and influence beyond their institutions.

Authors of year's best books in mathematics honored
Prizes for the year's best books in mathematics were awarded to Ian Stewart and Tim Chartier by the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) on Jan.

Read More: Mathematics News and Mathematics Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.