ScienceWhy 2 Is the Best Number and Other Secrets...

Why 2 Is the Best Number and Other Secrets from a MacArthur-Winning Mathematician


“Many individuals don’t understand that there are math questions that we don’t know easy methods to reply,” says mathematician Melanie Matchett Wooden of Harvard College and the Radcliffe Institute for Superior Research at Harvard. She lately received a MacArthur Fellowship (or “genius grant”) for her work looking for options to a few of these open issues. The award honors “terribly gifted and artistic people” with an $800,000 “no strings connected” prize.

Wooden was acknowledged for her analysis “addressing foundational questions in quantity idea,” which focuses on the entire numbers—1, 2, 3, and so forth, slightly than 1.5 or 3/8, as an example. Prime numbers, complete numbers which are higher than 1 and solely divisible by 1 and themselves (similar to 2 and seven), additionally fascinate her. A lot of her work makes use of arithmetic statistics, a area that focuses on discovering patterns within the conduct of primes and different varieties of numbers. She has tackled questions concerning the nature of primes in methods of numbers that embody the integers (these are zero, the entire numbers and unfavorable multiples of the entire numbers) however which are “prolonged” to incorporate another numbers as nicely. For instance, the system a + b√2 (the place a and b are integers) is such an extension. She additionally makes use of a smorgasbord of instruments from different areas of math when invoking these concepts may assist remedy difficult questions.

“The character of the work is ‘Right here’s a query that we have now no methodology to unravel. So give you a way,’” Wooden says. “That’s very totally different from most individuals’s expertise of arithmetic in class. It’s just like the distinction between studying a guide and writing a guide.”

Wooden spoke to Scientific American about her current win, her favourite mathematical instruments and tackling “excessive danger, excessive reward” issues.

Melanie Matchett Wood sitting at a desk smiling
Melanie Matchett Wooden. Credit score: © John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Basis (CC BY 4.0)

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

What makes a mathematical query intriguing?

I’m drawn in by questions on foundational buildings, similar to the entire numbers, that we don’t actually have any instruments to reply. [These] buildings of numbers underpin the whole lot in arithmetic. These are laborious questions, however that’s definitely thrilling to me.

If you happen to have been to construct an imaginary device belt with a few of the mathematical devices and concepts you discover most helpful in analysis, what would you place in it?

Among the key instruments are being keen to have a look at loads of concrete examples and attempt to see what phenomena are rising—bringing in different areas of math. Despite the fact that, perhaps, I work on a query in quantity idea about one thing like prime numbers, I exploit instruments from throughout arithmetic, from chance, from geometry. One other is the flexibility to attempt issues that do not work however be taught from these failures.

What’s your favourite prime quantity?

Two is my favourite quantity, so it’s positively my favourite prime quantity.

It appears so easy. But such wealthy arithmetic can come out of simply the quantity 2. For instance, 2 is type of chargeable for the idea of whether or not issues are even or odd. There’s a super richness that may come from simply contemplating issues in difficult conditions, about whether or not numbers are even or odd. I prefer it as a result of regardless that it’s small, it’s very highly effective.

Additionally, right here’s a enjoyable story: I used to be an undergraduate at Duke [University], and I used to be on our [team for the William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition. For the math team, we have shirts with numbers on the back. Many people have numbers like pi or √5—fun irrational numbers. But my number was 2. When I graduated from Duke, they retired my math jersey with the number 2 on it.

Have you always approached your number theory research from the perspective of arithmetic statistics?

Starting with my training in graduate school, I have always come from this arithmetic statistics perspective, in terms of wanting to understand the statistical patterns of numbers, [including] primes and the way they behave in bigger quantity methods.

A giant shift for me, particularly recently, has been [bringing] extra chance idea into the strategies for engaged on these questions. Likelihood idea, classically, is about distributions of numbers. You may measure the size of fish within the ocean or efficiency of scholars on a standardized check. You get a distribution of numbers and attempt to perceive how these numbers are [spread out].

For the type of work that I’m doing, we want one thing that’s extra like a chance idea, the place you’re not simply measuring a quantity for every knowledge level. You may have some extra complicated construction—for instance, perhaps it’s a form. From a form, you would possibly get numbers, similar to “What number of sides does it have?” However a form is not only a quantity or a few numbers; it has extra data than that.

What does successful this MacArthur prize imply to you?

It is a super honor. It’s, specifically, thrilling to me as a result of the MacArthur Fellowship actually celebrates creativity, and most of the people affiliate that extra with the humanities. However to make progress on math questions that nobody is aware of easy methods to reply additionally requires loads of creativity. It makes me pleased to see that acknowledged in arithmetic.

Harvard mathematician Michael Hopkins described your work on three-dimensional manifolds as “a stunning mixture of geometry and algebra.” What’s a three-dimensional manifold?

It’s a three-dimensional house that, if you happen to simply go searching in a small space, appears to be like just like the type of three-dimensional house that we’re used to. However if you happen to go on an extended stroll in that house, it may need stunning connections. Like, you stroll in a single path and find yourself again the place you began.

Which may sound type of loopy. However take into consideration two totally different two-dimensional areas. There is a flat aircraft, the place you possibly can stroll straight in each path, and also you’ll by no means come again to the place you begin. Then there’s the floor of the sphere. If you happen to stroll in some path, you’ll finally come again round. We will image these two totally different sorts of two-dimensional areas as a result of we stay in three-dimensional house. Properly, there are in actual fact three-dimensional areas which have these humorous properties which are totally different than the three-dimensional house that we’re used to interacting with.

What’s the essence of the work you’re doing on these areas?

We discover that sure sorts of three-dimensional areas exist with sure properties having to do with how one can stroll round and are available again to the place you began in them. We don’t exhibit, assemble or describe these areas. We present that they exist utilizing the probabilistic methodology.

We present that if you happen to take a random house in a sure manner, there may be some optimistic chance that you just’ll get a sure type of house. It is a lovely manner that mathematicians know one thing exists with out discovering it. If you happen to show that you are able to do one thing randomly, and there’s some optimistic probability, irrespective of how small, that you could get it from some random development, then it should exist.

We use these instruments to point out that there exist three-dimensional areas which have sure sorts of properties. Despite the fact that we don’t know of any examples, we show they exist.

Final yr you received a $1-million Alan T. Waterman Award from the U.S. Nationwide Science Basis. The Harvard Gazette famous that you just deliberate to make use of that funding to sort out “high-risk, high-reward tasks.” What are some examples?

This path of creating chance idea for extra difficult buildings than numbers is an instance. It’s high-risk, as a result of it’s not clear that it’s going to work, or perhaps it received’t grow to be as helpful as I hope. There’s no clear blueprint for the place it can go. But when it does work out, it could possibly be very highly effective.


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