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Has schoolboy genius solved problems that baffled mathematicians for centuries?

The Daily Mail reports that a “schoolboy ‘genius'” has solved “puzzles” “posed by” Issac Newton that have “baffled mathematicians for 350 years”. There are many nonsense warning signs but also hints that something interesting is going on.

First, the story as reported by the Daily Mail: that sixteen year old Shouryya Ray from Dresden, Germany, “solved two fundamental particle dynamics theories which physicists have previously been able to calculate only by using powerful computers”.

What does this mean? “His solutions mean that scientists can now calculate the flight path of a thrown ball and then predict how it will hit and bounce off a wall.”

The Australian reports, based on an article in the Sunday Times, with a little more detail. The problem that  “Newton posed” “in the 17th century” relates “to the movement of projectiles through the air”. The article says “mathematicians had only been able to offer partial solutions until now.” The article then refers to a second problem “dealing with the collision of a body with a wall, that was posed in the 19th century”.

Finally, this article claims that the “solutions are expected to contribute to greater precision in areas such as ballistics”. It doesn’t say who expects this.

So far it sounds like a story either made up or overblown by the press. On Twitter Peter asked if anyone had any information. Thony Christie replied with some extra information.

It seems to be genuine. He has won the regional heat of Jugend Forscht the German state science competition for under 21s with this work so it has been subjected to high level serious examination. He has just taken his Abitur=A-Levels at 16!

Daniel Rust provided a link to the competition’s page about Shouryya’s entry. Not reading German, we are relying on an automated translation of this. This has a little more information but not really enough to decide what happened.

This describes the two problems: “to calculate the trajectory of a body thrown at an angle in the Earth’s gravitational field and Newtonian flow resistance” and “the objective description of a particle-wall collision under Hertzian collision force and linear damping”. The next paragraph seems to say these are the first analytical solution for two problems which have previously only had numerical solutions.

A picture of him holding his equation, above, found via a thread on the James Randi Educational Foundation forums might throw some light on the matter. It’s an implicit equation involving a particle’s position and velocity. We suppose you’d need to solve that as an ODE in order to get an explicit formula for the position as a function of time. The forum discussion, and a similar discussion on Slashdot, concludes that the work doesn’t solve Newton’s original problem.

However, he’s done something you wouldn’t expect a school pupil to be able to do. Several people have pointed out that he only won second place in the national competition, while the first place winner Julius Kunze wrote a relativistic raytracer. This is much more computer science than maths, so perhaps even less media-friendly than a “maths genius” story.

We feel that it is likely that some piece of impressive work has been completed and Shouryya Ray is to be commended. However, pending further information on the work, we are now fairly convinced that this is being overblown by the press reports.

Sources:

Daily Mail: Schoolboy ‘genius’ solves puzzles posed by Sir Isaac Newton that have baffled mathematicians for 350 years.
The Australian:  German teen Shouryya Ray solves 300-year-old mathematical riddle posed by Sir Isaac Newton.
Teilnehmer 2012.
Discussion thread: James Randi Educational Foundation.
Discussion thread: Slashdot.
Picture source.

7 Responses to “Has schoolboy genius solved problems that baffled mathematicians for centuries?”

    • Peter Rowlett

      I have heard it described as Germany’s national science fair but I don’t know any more about it. What is it and what features does it have that you particularly like?

      Reply
      • Colin Beveridge

        Well, anything that encourages students to set their sights higher than ‘do well in exams’ is a good thing – particularly if the emphasis is on ‘discovering and writing up new stuff’ rather than ‘do progressively harder calculus on paper’.

        I also like that it’s such a positive thing – whether Ray’s (quite laudable) solution lives up to the media hype or not, it’s a good excuse to congratulate teenagers on being good at maths.

        Reply
        • Peter Rowlett

          Wikipedia has this, among other information:

          Jugend forscht…is a German youth science competition. With more than 10,000 participants annually, it is the biggest youth science and technology competition in Europe…
          Participants work on a self-chosen research project, hand in a written report about their work, and then present their results first at regional levels and later at a national contest to an expert jury, usually in the form of a poster session, often including a practical demonstration. Contest juries often invite university or industry experts to referee some of the projects, especially at the national contest, due to a high level of specialization.
          Participants can enter in one of seven subject groups:
          Biology
          Chemistry
          Geosciences and Astronomy
          Mathematics and Computer Science
          Physics
          Technology
          Work environment

          There are various ad hoc competitions but I’m not sure if we have anything this organised, or on this scale.

          There is the National Science & Engineering Competition, linked to the Big Bang fairs. Does this come close?

          Reply
  1. Lucas

    Very interesting story. I’ll be interested to see how the young man’s work holds up to academic scrutiny. Please keep us updated.

    Reply

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