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Math Education

Controversy Over 140-Year-Old Math Problem 64

Posted by kdawson
from the did-so-did-not dept.
sciencehabit writes "British mathematician Darren Crowdy has been bragging all week about how he solved a 140-year-old math problem, as we discussed a few days ago. But three American mathematicians say they had the critical idea first."
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Controversy Over 140-Year-Old Math Problem

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  • by immcintosh (1089551) <slashdot&ianmcintosh,org> on Friday March 07, 2008 @01:07PM (#22676912) Homepage
    Newton? Meet Leibniz.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by jbeaupre (752124)
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by Btarlinian (922732)

        Sure Archimedes used integral calculus, just like many other Greek mathematicians. Other mathematicians had used differential calculus as well. But as far as we know, Newton and Leibniz were the first to formulate and prove the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus, the basic relationship between differential and integral calculus.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Asmor (775910)
      This actually seems to be a recurring pattern... There have been many instances where an idea was discovered by multiple mathematicians in a relatively short time frame, and only one gets the credit... Usually not the first, either.

      I'm too lazy to do the research, but off the top of my head I think that Galois and Euler were both beaten to the punch in certain theorems by contemporaries, but ultimately they (Galois & Euler) got the credit.
  • I get it (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward
    "I solved this problem, here's the solution." "But we *thought* of it first."
  • by Trivial_Zeros (1058508) on Friday March 07, 2008 @01:12PM (#22677014)
    Q: What did the three American mathematicians say to the British mathematician? A: FIRST!!!!!
  • Basically, the british guy forgot to add a constant to the end. Problem solved.
    • by Cheapy (809643)
      Hey man, that constant is a big thing. It could be the difference between the equation giving an answer of 1 and an answer of 10000000000000000000000001.

      Big stuff.
      • by WombatDeath (681651) on Friday March 07, 2008 @02:38PM (#22678374)
        Two mathematicians, let's call them Bob and Tarquin, were in a café discussing the woeful state of mathematical ignorance amongst the general public. Bob excused himself to visit the restroom and Tarquin beckoned over the waitress.

        "Would you mind helping me with a small bet?" he asked. "When my friend returns I'm going to ask you a question, and I'd like you to reply 'X cubed'. OK?"

        The waitress looked mystified but agreed to do as requested. A few minutes later, Dave returned and the two men resumed their earlier conversation.

        "It's not all that bad," said Tarquin. "I bet you $10 that even this slack-jawed troll of a waitress can do basic calculus".

        "You're on!" scoffed Dave.

        So they beckoned the waitress over. Tarquin gave her a surreptitious wink and said "I wonder if you could help my friend and I settle an argument - can you tell me the integral of three X squared?"

        The waitress pondered for a moment and replied "Easy: X cubed".

        Tarquin grinned smugly at Dave as the waitress walked away. And then, over her shoulder, she added: "Oh yes: plus a constant".
  • I always thought it mattered who published first, not thought of it.

    The first to post on ./ "wins"?
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by dkleinsc (563838)
      For instance, Lobachevsky, at least according to Tom Lehrer [umich.edu]. (For those of you sound-deprived, enjoy the lyrics [aol.com]).
    • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward
      I always thought it mattered who published first, not thought of it.

      Yes, in Mathematics, moreso, even.
      The first one to publish a full proof is the one that gets credited with 'solving' the problem. Just coming up with the strategy doesn't mean much, because there's no way of knowing that the strategy will work until you actually carry it out. And doing so is not a trivial thing, either. (or they would've done it immediately)

      To take a recent, high-profile example, the Poincaré conjecture was solved by G
  • by Alien54 (180860) on Friday March 07, 2008 @01:24PM (#22677214) Journal
    But mathematicians John Pfaltzgraff of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Thomas DeLillo and Alan Elcrat, both of Wichita State University in Kansas, say they had the basic strategy--and a formula--first.

    Crowdy heard Elcrat talk about that work in 2003, but he says the American trio didn't realize the relevance of the Schottky groups.

    The Americans' formula, published in 2004, involves the multiplication of an infinite number of terms, which goes haywire if the holes are too close together. Crowdy's formula replaces that product with an obscure beast known as Schottky-Klein prime function. Crowdy says his formula will never fail. "I'm very skeptical" of that claim, says Pfaltzgraff.

    Basicaslly, the American Team was clueless until someone pointed out the obvious to them, now they want the credit. Fail.

  • ... if you don't get the last square and yell "bingo". Them's the breaks Mr. Johnny-Come-Lately
    • Ahh what happened to the good old days, where conflicts like this over credit were resolved based upon the nobility and social standing of the mathematicians? Why, Newton once stated his greatest accomplishment was crushing Leibniz.
      • I hope for the sake of reason and logic that those days are long gone. A schmuck in his basement deserves as much credit for solving a problem as the guy who writes the forwards to your textbooks. Think before you post, and no, I'm not sorry if I've offended you.
        • It was a joke. Laugh.
          • Haha, ok. well I'm not used to people joking about that I guess. Recently I've become disillusioned with the majority of public opinion. It's funny because I think that most people would say that. Oh well.
            • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

              You really think most people think credit should be determined based upon who's someone's parents were? Or there social standing? I don't know how to figure either of those out in this day and age.

              You must have translated that in your head to the prestige of the university someone went to or number of papers written. That I can see many people actually using today, to my dismay. If being a professor was about more than numbers of papers written in a given time period, I would have considered it as a caree
      • Well, Newton was a dick. Apparently he derived great pleasure having people executed for counterfeiting [wikipedia.org].

        And Leibniz's notation is much better than Newton's. Plus the Greeks beat them both to it anyways.
      • by Bush Pig (175019)
        Or, of course, the way Janos Bolyai resolved 19 conflicts one morning in 1833. (Well, OK, they weren't exactly mathematical conflicts, but still ...)

  • by ELProphet (909179) <davidsouther@gmail.com> on Friday March 07, 2008 @01:31PM (#22677304) Homepage

    This anecdote is attributed to Landau (the Russian physicist Lev not the Göttingen mathematician Edmund).

    Landau's group was discussing a bright new theory, and one of junior colleagues of Landau bragged that he had independently discovered the theory a couple of years ago, but did not bother to publish his finding.

    "I would not repeat this claim if I were you," Landau replied: "There is nothing wrong if one has not found a solution to a particular problem. However, if one has found it but does not publish it, he shows a poor judgment and inability to understand what important is in modern physics".
    Actually, from TFA, the American team did publish first, but "didn't realize the relevance of the Schottky groups." Further, the Brit (working independently, and supposedly without knowledge of this obscure paper) says his formula will work every time. The Americans are of course sceptical, but can't seem to find any situation where it won't work. Kudos to both, but it seems history will go to the Brit for this. I'll check Wiki in about a year; I'll bet it talks about the Brit, and mentions the American team in passing.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by berashith (222128)
      Why not check the wiki every five minutes. Whoever can keep their name in the article longest is the winner!
    • by MrWa (144753)
      I'll check Wiki in about a year; I'll bet it talks about the Brit, and mentions the American team in passing. Well, as an American, through careful and methodical wiki editing, I will see to it that you are disappointed in a year!
  • by GuyMannDude (574364) on Friday March 07, 2008 @01:34PM (#22677358) Journal

    I object to the use of the word 'bragging' in the summary. I went to grad school with Darren (his office was 3 doors down from mine) and he was a great all-around guy. He was someone you could joke around with and I never saw any indication of him being a braggard. It's possible that he's changed significantly in the last 10 years, but I see nothing in TFA that would suggest this. He made what is potentially a significant contribution. Why shouldn't he be aloud to be proud of it?

    GMD

    • by Kamokazi (1080091)
      It's hard to infer tone from reading, but when I read a site with some quotes from him, he used a LOT of "I's", "me's", and "my's"...so it's very easy to come to the conclusion that he was bragging from reading them. He was probably just excited and not necessarily bragging.
      • by Xocet_00 (635069)
        The article seems to indicate that he's working on his own. I agree that overusing things like "I", "me" and "my" can sound a lot like bragging (whereas "We", "ours", etc. does not) but if he really was working solo, he wouldn't need to phrase it any other way, neh?

        To be fair, one should probably not be using subjective tenses all that much in academic writing anyway.
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Cragen (697038)
      Actually, the slip of the keyboard is perfect. "aloud" instead of "allowed"? Perfect. "Allowed to be loud" is now "Aloud"! Have a great weekend, All!
  • Offtopic (Score:5, Funny)

    by apdyck (1010443) <aaron.p.dyck@g[ ]l.com ['mai' in gap]> on Friday March 07, 2008 @01:42PM (#22677472) Homepage Journal
    The British guy got in his First Post, but was modded -1 Offtopic by three American moderators.
  • But mathematicians John Pfaltzgraff of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Thomas DeLillo and Alan Elcrat, both of Wichita State University in Kansas, say they had the basic strategy--and a formula--first. Crowdy heard Elcrat talk about that work in 2003, but he says the American trio didn't realize the relevance of the Schottky groups. The Americans' formula, published in 2004, involves the multiplication of an infinite number of terms, which goes haywire if the holes are too close together.

    • That's total bullshit! The Americans came up with something that was practically useless and then the Brit came along and turned it into something useful. Sorry, but the Brit is the only one with the claim to fame here. You see, that's how Science and Math works. Everyone builds on everyone else's work and the guy(s) that ends up actually making the breakthrough wins. Want another example? How about Einstein's SR. Most of the stuff used to create that was well known at the time.
  • if they can 'morph' a polygon into a circle and vice versa, then can't they figure the size of the polygon precisely and use it to define the size of the circle and say that Pi is a finite number?

    I'll freely admit I'm doing good to count to 21 without slipping off my boots and unzipping my jeans, but...

    • by ultranova (717540)

      if they can 'morph' a polygon into a circle and vice versa, then can't they figure the size of the polygon precisely and use it to define the size of the circle and say that Pi is a finite number?

      Pi is a finite number: it is more than 3 but less than 4. It is also precisely defined: it is exactly the circumference of a circle in an euclidean plane divided by the diameter of the same circle.

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