Hardy, Har, Har
The Riemann Hypothesis is not an easy thing to prove, which is why the Clay Institute is offering a $1,000,000 prize to the first person who is able to do it. Originally formulated in 1859, the Riemann Hypothesis is the only millenium problem that also appeared on David Hilbert’s list of unsolved problems.
I was about to say that the following is my favorite joke about the Riemann Hypothesis. Then it occurred to me — it very well may be the only joke about the Riemann Hypothesis. (Feel free to prove me wrong. Post others in the comments.) In any case, it’s certainly the only one I know.
After spending years trying to prove the Riemann hypothesis, a mathematician promises his soul to the Devil in exchange for a proof. The Devil promises to deliver a proof by the end of the week.
Excitedly, the mathematician begins distributing press releases promising a completed proof within a week. This generates a lot of attention, and he gains instant celebrity. For the next several days, he is inundated with phone calls and interviews. But at the end of the week, the Devil does not return with a proof, and the media is disappointed. The mathematician tells them he just needs a little more time. Yet at the end of a month, the Devil has still not returned, and the mathematician is discredited. He is completely distraught.
Finally, six months later, the Devil returns.
“Where have you been?” says the mathematician. “You’ve ruined my career!”
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t prove the Riemann hypothesis, either. But,” he says, with a big smile, “I think I found some really interesting lemmas!”
Proving the Riemann Hypothesis was one of the things that G. H. Hardy wanted to do. As the story goes, he once sent a postcard to a friend with the following New Year’s resolutions:
- To prove the Riemann hypothesis;
- To make a brilliant play in a crucial cricket match;
- To prove the nonexistence of God;
- To be the first man atop Mount Everest;
- To be proclaimed the first president of the U.S.S.R., Great Britain, and Germany; and,
- To murder Mussolini.
I love that list, and I appreciate Hardy’s ambition. It got me to thinking… when my time on this great sphere comes to an end, what will I want to have accomplished? My “bucket list” contains the following items:
- Be quoted in the New York Times. (I’ve had my picture in the New York Times, and I’ve been quoted in the Arizona Republic.) Preferably, my quote will appear in an article about a profound mathematical result or a transformational educational innovation and not part of an article that reads, “As he entered the court room, Vennebush defended himself by saying, ‘You don’t understand. How was I supposed to know he was an FBI agent and not a drug dealer?’”
- Reduce my Erdös number to 2. (Since “the man who loved only numbers” is deceased, it’s impossible to get a 1.) My current number is 4, which ties me with Danica McKellar. But I’ve co‑authored with Art Benjamin, whose Erdös number will be 2 as soon as a forthcoming paper is published, which means my Erdös number will be reduced to 3. (Take that, Danica!)
- Earn a higher salary than my wife. If I continue to work in the field of education, it’s doubtful this will ever happen. Even if I leave education, it’s doubtful, because she’s way smarter than I am. Instead, perhaps I should try to be a great husband so my wife never leaves me for someone who makes more money.
- Play Ultimate Frisbee well into my 60’s, and be the first sextagenarian to play at the Ultimate National Championships.
- Raise sons who graduate from college and find professional happiness, preferably in a lucrative scientific field — “What’s that? You want to major in 17th century French literature, Eli? That’s fine. You’ll just have to pay for college yourself.” — and then find it in their hearts to support me after my 401k is tapped out.
- Murder Mussolini.