Statistician Solves Famous Mathematical Conjecture and Nobody Notices

The discovery was like a religious epiphany and a reward in itself

Via Wired, a delightful news story from Quanta Magazine about a retired statistician who solved a famous mathematical conjecture.

Thomas Royen, of Schwalbach am Taunus in Germany, solved the Gaussian Correlation Inequality conjecture (GCI), a problem that had eluded mathematicians since the 1950s. Royen’s breakthrough came by applying statistical methods and functions to a problem that others had been trying to solve using geometry. This has wonderful anecodtal value when we think about problem solving in general: someone with a different point of view was able to crack a conundrum that had eluded the most eminent of tenured mathematicians for two generations.

The Quanta article has a deeper explanation of the problem and it’s solution. The proof will be useful in this age of Big Data, where we seek to explain and – crucially – to predict by looking at correlations between data sets.

The story also teaches us something interesting about the way our modern media works. Almost as astonishing as the solution itself was the fact that no-body noticed for two years! This was down to Royen’s lack of contacts, and that the structures of authority and credibility that exist around publications (in this case, academic journals) served to suppress news of his findings. Moreover, there is something enviable about his happy detachment from the usual sources of external validation – the opinion of other people:

As for the proof’s muted reception, Royen wasn’t particularly disappointed or surprised. “I am used to being frequently ignored by scientists from [top-tier] German universities,” he wrote in an email. “I am not so talented for ‘networking’ and many contacts. I do not need these things for the quality of my life.”

The “feeling of deep joy and gratitude” that comes from finding an important proof has been reward enough. “It is like a kind of grace,” he said

Royen’s point about grace is also noteworthy. Scientists often talk about the transcendental beauty they find in the natural world. The most uplifting quote in the article is from Professor Donald Richards of Pennsylvania State University, who had worked on the problem for 30 years. Instead of jealously at having been ‘scooped’ in the discovery, Richards felt nothing but delight.

Upon seeing the proof, “I really kicked myself,” Richards said. … “But on the other hand I have to also tell you that when I saw it, it was with relief,” he said. “I remember thinking to myself that I was glad to have seen it before I died.” 

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