Huffpost Education

Shouryya Ray, 16-Year-Old 'Genius,' Didn't Actually Solve Newton's 350-Year-Old Mathematical Problem

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It was widely reported by the media last month that 16-year-old Shouryya Ray had solved a problem first posed by Sir Isaac Newton over 350 years ago that has baffled mathematicians ever since.
It was widely reported by the media last month that 16-year-old Shouryya Ray had solved a problem first posed by Sir Isaac Newton over 350 years ago that has baffled mathematicians ever since.

It was widely reported by the media last month that 16-year-old Shouryya Ray had solved a problem first posed by Sir Isaac Newton over 350 years ago that has baffled mathematicians ever since.

The Indian-born student, who lives in eastern Germany and was conducting an internship at Technische Universität Dresden, was hailed as a genius for working out two fundamental particle dynamics equations that previously could only be approximated using computers with partial solutions. Ray’s solutions allegedly allowed for exact calculation of a projectile’s trajectory under gravity and subject to air resistance. In layman’s terms, an object’s flight path could now be calculated and predictions made about how the item would collide with and ricochet off a barrier.

As it turns out, Ray did not solve Newton’s 300-year-old puzzle -- because the problem never actually existed.

“The misunderstanding starts here already — Newton did not ‘pose a problem,’” Jürgen Voigt, a math professor at TU Dresden, told The Huffington Post in an email. “He stated that the motion of a body under the influence of gravity and friction in the air is governed by a certain differential equation. Meanwhile, the classical theory of ordinary differential equations yields that this equation can be solved, and that the solution can be represented in a certain form -- a series.”

"Classical,” Voigt notes, means that the theory is contained in textbooks, and is presented in second- or third-year courses at the university.

Voigt and his colleague at TU Dresden, Professor Ralph Chill, published a four-page report June 4 in which they attempted to contextualize Ray’s work and compare it with results presented in preexisting literature.

Voigt emphasized to HuffPost that Ray was deserving of the research award he received, and that the student's work should be appreciated from the perspective that he is a 16-year-old high school student using a kind of mathematics far beyond high-school level.

That said, Ray’s alleged solutions were “not endorsed by experts in the field who should have been involved in the evaluation of the work,” Voigt and Chill wrote in their published comments on the young man’s work. Furthermore, his steps were largely already known to experts.

Voigt said he did not know how the public was made to believe that a long-standing problem had been solved.

“The point is not that something is missing in Ray’s analysis, but rather that there was no ‘problem posed by Newton,’ and that the methods used by Ray are exceptional and remarkable for a high-school student, but standard for professional mathematicians,” Voigt said.

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Filed by Alex Kuczynski-Brown