Nobody from New Hampshire won a “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation this year. Two winners were at Harvard, one at MIT, one (a poet) from Vermont. (List is here)
Seven winners have had strong N.H. roots over the history of the award, including the prize given last year to the state’s best-known mathematician. Here’s the 2014 story I wrote:
DURHAM – Yitang “Tom” Zhang is best known at UNH in Durham as a calculus teacher, where he receives rave reviews in online student forums, but now he’s probably going to be dogged by the “genius” label.
Zhang is known for work on what is known as the twin-prime theory, which has drawn several of the highest awards in mathematics.
On Wednesday, his fame kicked up a notch when he was one of 21 people to receive a fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation – an award often called the “genius grant.” The fellowship, given to “individuals who show exceptional creativity in their work and the prospect for still more in the future,” carries a $625,000 prize over five years, with no strings attached.
The award was given to Zhang for the nature of his breakthrough research, not for his unusual personal story. Zhang, 58, received mathematics degrees from prestigious institutions in his native China, and a doctorate from Purdue University in 1992, but couldn’t get a university job.
He worked in a Subway shop and as an accountant before being hired by the then-head of UNH mathematics department Ken Appel, who until now was the most famous mathematician associated with UNH.
None of his history prepared his peers for his presentation on May 13, 2013, at a conference at Harvard University, when he said he had proved a weak version of the twin-prime conjecture, one of the famous unsolved problems in mathematics.
He had worked on the problem by himself and without letting many other people know about it, so this surprising announcement from an unknown academic astonished many people. It landed him in the prestigious journal Nature, among other places.
Primes are numbers which can’t be divided evenly by other integers – that is, are divisible only by 1 and themselves. They are the basis of all mathematics, just as the periodic table is the basis of all chemistry.
A conjecture is an educated guess. In this case, the conjecture is that there are infinity pairs of prime numbers which are separated by exactly 2; for example, 17 and 19, or 41 and 43, or (2,003,663,613 × 2^195,000) − 1 and (2,003,663,613 × 2^195,000) + 1.
Mathematicians are pretty sure that, no matter how far up the number line you go, you will never run out of these twin-prime pairs. But nobody has a proof.
In a Telegraph interview in May 2013, Zhang was quick to point out he had not provided such a proof. What he did prove is that there are an infinity of primes which are separated by no more than 70 million, not separated by 2.
The step was big enough to garner attention from peers, which wasn’t entirely welcome from Zhang, 58, a retiring fellow. At the time of his announcement he didn’t even have an official photo on the UNH website.
Two other UNH professors have won: Laurel Ulrich, author of the history “A Midwife’s Tale,” who won in 1992, and poet Charles Simic, who won in 1984.
Other state winners include naturalist David Carroll of Warner; environmental writer Donella Meadows and computer scientist Daniela Rus, both of Dartmouth College; and poet Jay Wright.