Don Quixote tilts at Zeta functions

A friend of mine, Rohit Gupta (@fadesingh) has been doing some of the most creative mathematics communication out there. Using myths, stories, puzzles and poetry he has been making deep questions of mathematics accessible to others in online workshops and now a newspaper column in India. He is about to start a crazy and fascinating project, taking on possibly the greatest challenge of modern mathematics, the Riemann Hypothesis, which plunges the depths of the mysterious structure of the prime numbers. This would be an ambitious project for a group of mathematicians to take on. Current wisdom is probably that there are not even realistic routes to solve the problem. For a group with little or no mathematical training it is just crazy. That is what I love about the project.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a fan of impossible quests, and this one comes damn close. In the classic tradition of Don Quixote (which even mentions prime numbers) the value of a quest lies in the seeking, not the goal. Why should the privilege of failing to prove the Riemann Hypothesis be reserved to mathematicians? At worst a group of people will learn a lot, just getting an idea of the prime number theorem, or a clue about what a zeta function even is, is already an achievement. Can that be bad?

Even better the project emphasises that whatever your philosophy of mathematics, its actual study is a very human process. Baring some fairly extreme situations, if the Riemann Hypothesis is proved it will be by humans. Possible special and weird humans, but humans nonetheless. Just as the problem itself was discovered/dreamt up/found by one. Changing the perception of mathematicians as priests with almost magical abilities, to smart, professionals who have been through a tough training again cannot be a bad thing.

I am therefore proud to be part of this project, and see my role as that of Sancho Panza, sometimes bringing the flights of fancy down to earth, but increasingly fascinated and invested in the quest and where it might lead.

Of course it doesn’t hurt that the first stage of the project is playing with quasi-crystals, which have been a large part of my research life.