The Real Story

Last week, a friend on Facebook pointed me to a story that seemed like it would be of interest to mathematician like myself but upon reading the story, there were a number of quirky details in the story and some important details missing.  It made me suspicious.

STOCKHOLM (AFP) – A 16-year-old Iraqi immigrant living in Sweden has cracked a maths puzzle that has stumped experts for more than 300 years, Swedish media reported on Thursday.

In just four months, Mohamed Altoumaimi has found a formula to explain and simplify the so-called Bernoulli numbers, a sequence of calculations named after the 17th century Swiss mathematician Jacob Bernoulli, the Dagens Nyheter daily said.

See the rest of the news story here.

Now, I’m no number theorist but I did take a course in Special Functions where the topic of Bernoulli numbers came up.  I was not aware of any 300 year old problem so I did some hunting and couldn’t find out what problem had been solved.  I also couldn’t find any mathematical news source citing the major development.

Thanks to Keith Devlin, we have a little more insight to the story.  In his MAA article this week, he wrote,

So I dug around on the Web for more details. There were a lot of news stories about the topic, but they all said more or less the same as the article I had already seen. Eventually, however, I found a Swedish news Website with an English-language story that was close to the source (Uppsala University).

"Swedish teen tackles centuries-old numbers challenge" was the headline. The story began, "A 16-year-old Iraqi immigrant in central Sweden has single-handedly figured out a formula with Bernoulli numbers that is normally reserved for much more seasoned mathematicians, earning him praise from professors at prestigious Uppsala University." Ah. Much more believable.

The reporter went on to explain that Altoumaimi, the young high school pupil, had developed some equations involving the Bernoulli numbers. When his school math teachers were unable to tell him whether what he had done was correct, the student contacted a professor at Uppsala University, who, after examining his work, declared that it was indeed correct. Not new, however. As the story continued,

"While it’s not the first time that someone has shown such Bernoulli number relationships, it’s highly unusual for a first year high school student to make his way through the complicated calculations, according to Uppsala University senior maths lecturer Lars-ke Lindahl."

I feel better knowing the truth behind the story.  Devlin was able to find the source I couldn’t find in my own digging.  Thanks, Keith.

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