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An answer to what Shouryya Ray’s ‘unsolved Newton problem’ was

You may remember a story, widely reported, that 16 year old student Shouryya Ray from Dresden had solved “puzzles posed by Sir Isaac Newton that have baffled mathematicians for 350 years“. You may have read our write up of this, which concluded 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.

You may also remember that some reports had Ray coming across the problems “during a school trip to Dresden University where professors claimed they were uncrackable”. Now an open letter has appeared on the webpages of the Technische Universität Dresden signed by Prof. Dr. Ralph Chill and Prof. Dr. Jürgen Voigt, which offers some answers.

This remarks that

the news was discussed on the internet, but unfortunately without any information stating what the problem of Newton actually was, and what the work accomplished by the young student was.

However Chill and Voigt have seen a copy of the work, completed during an internship in fluid mechanics at TU Dresden, and write, with Ray’s consent, giving details of the work and describing its relation with results in the literature. The work concerns “two ordinary differential equations which are special cases of Newton’s law that the derivative of the momentum of a particle equals the forces acting on it”. The first “describes the motion of a particle in a gas or fluid” and the second “describes the trajectory of the center point … of a spherical particle during a normal collision with a plane wall”.

They conclude:

Given the level of prerequisites that he had, he made great progress. Nevertheless all his steps are basically known to experts, and we emphasize that he did not solve an open problem posed by Newton.

Commenting on the quality of the work, they point to an “impressive talent as far as computational techniques are concerned” and make a point of saying:

We wish to emphasize that the amount of literature absorbed by the young student is impressive, and that the same is true for the variety of techniques for solving ordinary differential equations that he learned, applied, and sometimes developed by himself. The work is without doubt exceptional for a high school student and it merits the attention that it received in a national science competition for high school students. However, it sometimes lacks the theoretical background of mathematical analysis.

They end the letter by expressing a hope that

this small text gives the necessary information to the mathematical community, and that it allows the community to both put in context and appreciate the work of Shouryya Ray who plans to start a career in mathematics and physics.

Presumably, given this new information, a lot of red-faced media outlets will be publishing prominent correction pieces. So look out for those.

Source: Comments on some recent work by Shouryya Ray.

I am grateful to Thony Christie for directing me to this result on Twitter.

4 Responses to “An answer to what Shouryya Ray’s ‘unsolved Newton problem’ was”

  1. Avatar Thony C

    Presumably, given this new information, a lot of red-faced media outlets will be publishing prominent correction pieces. So look out for those.

    Glad to see you have a sense of humour Peter.

  2. Avatar Tony Leung

    It seems that the work of the boy and the coverage it got in the media has hurt a number of souls who haven’t been able to digest the fact that someone with such a “small achievement” has got so much of press. Instead of doing the hard work of what he did versus what had already been done in the area and why he was being hailed they chose to publish articles full of jealousy trying to belittle the little boy as much as they could within the limits of literary decency. Shame on people who are hurt to their bottom because no one looks at what they do but a little boy’s work got him some press.


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