On April 17, a paper arrived in the inbox of Annals of Mathematics, one of the discipline’s preeminent journals. Written by a mathematician virtually unknown to the experts in his field — a 50-something lecturer at the University of New Hampshire named Yitang Zhang — the paper claimed to have taken a huge step forward in understanding one of mathematics’ oldest problems, the twin primes conjecture.
Editors of prominent mathematics journals are used to fielding grandiose claims from obscure authors, but this paper was different. Written with crystalline clarity and a total command of the topic’s current state of the art, it was evidently a serious piece of work, and the Annals editors decided to put it on the fast track.
Just three weeks later — a blink of an eye compared to the usual pace of mathematics journals — Zhang received the referee report on his paper.
“The main results are of the first rank,” one of the referees wrote. The author had proved “a landmark theorem in the distribution of prime numbers.”
More on twin primes...
Prime numbers are abundant at the beginning of the number line, but they grow much sparser among large numbers. Of the first 10 numbers, for example, 40 percent are prime — 2, 3, 5 and 7 — but among 10-digit numbers, only about 4 percent are prime. For over a century, mathematicians have understood how the primes taper off on average: Among large numbers, the expected gap between prime numbers is approximately 2.3 times the number of digits; so, for example, among 100-digit numbers, the expected gap between primes is about 230.
But that’s just on average. Primes are often much closer together than the average predicts, or much farther apart. In particular, “twin” primes often crop up — pairs such as 3 and 5, or 11 and 13, that differ by only 2. And while such pairs get rarer among larger numbers, twin primes never seem to disappear completely (the largest pair discovered so far is 3,756,801,695,685 x 2666,669 – 1 and 3,756,801,695,685 x 2666,669 + 1).