Three years ago a soft-spoken calculus lecturer at UNH named Yitang “Tom” Zhang suddenly became world famous, at least within the world of research mathematics, for releasing a major breakthrough in the twin-prime conjecture (which guesses that there are infinity pairs of prime numbers separated by exactly 2 – such as 17 and 19, or 2,003,663,613 × 2^195,000 − 1 and 2,003,663,613 × 2^195,000 + 1).
He also became sort of famous outside mathematics because of his personal story. Usually life stories have to be dramatically sad to bring mathematicians to public attention – becoming schizophrenic like John Nash or dying in a duel over a pretty girl like Evariste Galois – but Zhang’s story was more low-key. After coming to the U.S. from China and getting his Ph.D. at Purdue he couldn’t get an academic job, so for years he did low-level accounting work, including with the sandwich chain Subway, before being hired at Durham in 1999. His eventual success at the old (by mathematical standards) age of 57 had a rags-to-riches appeal and he is certainly the most famous living mathematician in New Hampshire, and one of the top three ever associated with the state. (Ken Apple of four-color-theorem-proof fame, who was math department head at UNH later in his career, and computer guru John Kemeny of Dartmouth are the other two, in my humble opinion.)
It’s fitting that his life story was low-key because he is, too. I interviewed Zhang in 2013 when he was so retiring that there wasn’t even a photo of him on the UNH math department’s web page. He seemed bemused, at best, by the attention and a little uncertain about how to talk to the non-technical press. In fact, much of my article quoted the department chair, Edward Hinson – although I did get this description of how he works:
How do you do your job? This is how Tom Zhang does his:
“I just start to think about the question. I walk around the room, maybe outside,” said Zhang, a UNH mathematics professor who drew global attention last week for making a big step toward solving a number-theory problem that dates back to the ancient Greeks. “The most important thing is to keep thinking, for hours, for days, for weeks, for months, whenever you have time. … Even when I’m sleeping.”
Zhang is best known in Durham as a calculus teacher – students give him rave reviews on RateMyProfessors.com, which is unusual for a mathematician with a strong accent – but in the mathematics community he’s now the twin-prime guy.
The whole article is here, but the Nashua Telegraph’s paywall may keep you out. If so, you can check this very good 2013 interview here at a science magazine called Nautilus, which they reprinted in December as part of an issue detailing “heroes” in various fields.