Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Music of the Primes

A mathematician is a machine that turns coffee into theorems- Paul Erdos


I was roaming around the campus reporting events for the engineer press. None of the articles reached the readers in the end due to the sheer inefficiency of the responsible lads. My friend dragged me to a video conference with a mathematician named Marcus Du Sautoy. I just felt uneasy about a French guy sitting on a prestigious oxford chair without reason.  The quality of the Skype feed was unclear and there were only a dozen people in the ATB Seminar Hall (Capacity of the hall is about 200 people). The video conference was about to end and they had reached the Q and A stage. Surprisingly, nobody had any questions.  I just went up and asked about applications of pure math in Engineering just to break the silence.  Though his answer was not mind-blowing, or enlightening it was interesting. It was  a precursor to something interesting.

I was not participating in any events at Engineer. I felt that I could just while away my time in Mangalore. I went to a book store in City Center and started to search for some book about Feynman. I was quite impressed by the book “Surely You’re Joking Mr.Feynman” . As I started to scan the shelf, I suddenly caught the name Marcus Du Sautoy. The blurb and responses to the book were very positive. I pulled out my phone and checked its worth on the internet. It had 4+ rating on five on both and Voila.  I call this luck. I picked up the book though it was slightly costly.

The Book

There is a German myth about Frederick Barbarossa, a much loved German Emperor who died during the Third Crusade. A legend grew that he was still alive , asleep in a cavern in the Khyfffhauser Mountains. He would awake only when Germany needed him. 

Somebody allegedly asked Hilbert," If you were to be revived like Barbarossa, after five hundred years, what would you do?"

His reply :"I would ask, "Has someone proved the Riemann hypothesis" 

  Marcus Du Sautoy in "The music of the primes"

 Marcus du Sautoy is an extraordinary story teller who happens to be a mathematician as well. He has done several T.V Shows for BBC. Honestly I just read it like a story book. The book is for armchair mathematicians like you and me. The mathematical content of the book is a meager 10-15% percent.
So don't hesitate to pick up this book in case you get an opportunity.

The book is about the history of the several attempts made to solve the long standing problem in Number theory called the “Riemann Hypothesis”. It also describes the larger picture about the lives of mathematicians, their idiosyncrasies, insecurities and their passion for the subject . I could clearly understand the importance of a proof in mathematics. Du Sautoy writes the following about the immortality of a proof.

"That is often why people surrounded by a world of uncertainty are drawn o the subject. Time after time has the mathematical world offered a refuge for young minds yearning to escape the real world they cannot cope with"

The chapter about Srinivasa Ramanujan gives you an entrancing account of his mathematical career. It also explains the effect of socio-political events in history that has shaped the mathematical activities of the 20th century. I would highly recommend this book for anybody who is interested in mathematics and history in equal measures. The chemistry between Hardy and Littlewood has also been brought in a very humorous manner.

A very interesting section of the book speaks about the striking parallels between the prime number theory and  Quantum physics. Further sections speak about the role of computers and the limitations of their use in mathematics and number theory research.

Mathematicians around the world are striving to solve this mathematical masterpiece. Anybody who solves it will reach heights of glory similar to that of Einstein and Newton. I would be really proud if somebody was inspired to solve this problem after reading this post.  I end this description by reiterating that the book is highly recommended for anybody who is interested in mathematics and history in equal measures.

So, If you are just curious about the Riemann Hypothesis, you might read the following links. Otherwise you might very well stop here.

What is Riemann Hypothesis?

Read Quote of Edwin Chen's answer to Riemann Hypothesis: What is the relationship between the Riemann Hypothesis and prime numbers? on Quora


  1. I don't know if you are into philosophy, but anyway, I suggest you read 'Story of Philosophy' by Will Durant. None that I have read has presented so difficult a subject as clearly or entertainingly as he. No exaggeration in saying that it's the best written book known to me. I have a copy at home and can lend it should you be interested.

  2. A very good invitation to a book that seems to be quite different.

  3. Forever scared of Maths, I almost didn't read this fine post (I skipped the link;)!

    PS: Incidentally, did you notice the music of the Captcha?