Seven Million Reasons to Love Maths

I’ve always liked Maths; my first memory of the subject is from the tender age of seven. We were doing addition questions and had been told by the teacher to work our way through a set of exercises in a textbook. I remember racing through the questions and finishing the work we had been set in no time, but unsatisfied I carried on, and on, and on, until suddenly there were no more questions left and I realised I had finished the book…

Fast forward to my teenage years and I was getting excited by maths once again, this time reading about the Millennium Maths Problems. It’s quite simple really, tell someone (especially a teenager) that they can be a millionaire by doing a particular thing and suddenly that thing seems a lot more attractive. This is exactly what the Millennium Maths Problems are: seven unsolved problems that each have a prize of $1 million for a correct solution. If this sounds great, then you’re right –  it is – but a little word of caution: these are not your standard everyday Maths problems. One of them (The Yang-Mills Mass Gap Hypothesis to give it its full title) basically asks the question ‘why do things have mass?’ Another, the Hodge Conjecture, is so complicated that depending on which mathematician you ask you will get a different version of the problem. How can we hope to solve a problem when we can’t even agree on what it is in the first place? It’s almost like mathematicians purposefully make things as difficult as possible to maintain a sense of superiority. Well, not me.

This is maths, but not as you know it. That means it’s fun. That means it’s entertaining. And most importantly that means it’s understandable. If after my explanations, you can’t explain the subject to your grandma then I’ve failed. You can even shout at me via various social media platforms and let me know. I’m here to rock maths and the Millennium Problems are the perfect starting point. They are the first bit of maths that really got me excited about the subject and I hope they will have the same effect on you. Let’s begin with a little history lesson…

The problems were first presented at a meeting in Paris in the year 2000 (as the name would suggest) as maths looked to jump on the “oh look it’s a new millennium let’s do something exciting” bandwagon. This wasn’t the first time important unsolved maths problems had been discussed in the French capital. Go back to the year 1900 and the rather excitingly named ‘International Congress of Mathematicians’ where a man named David Hilbert presented a list of 23 problems that he believed to be the greatest unsolved problems in maths at the time. You can think of the Millennium Problems as sort of a flashier, streamlined, more up-to-date version of the idea, pretty much like the new Beauty and the Beast movie that has just come out. In the new film you swap a cartoon princess for Emma Watson and with the Millennium Problems you swap 23 problems with no prize money for 7 questions each worth a million dollars. I know which one I prefer…

The funding for the prizes comes from the Clay Institute who worked together with leading mathematicians to pick the final seven. I’m not sure exactly how you pick the ‘greatest unsolved problems currently faced by mathematics’, but I like to think that they locked everyone in a dark room and held some kind of secret candlelit ballot… it certainly adds drama to the election of a new pope – maybe they even released some white smoke after each problem was picked. But I’m getting off topic. The actual criteria for a problem to be selected was that it must be a ‘classical problem that had resisted solution for many years’. I’m not sure that really narrows it down, but I suppose maths doesn’t exactly have a reputation for doing things the easy way… until now.

Over the next few weeks I plan to delve deeper into each of the seven problems in turn: telling you what it is, why you should care about it and what it would mean if we were somehow able to solve it (besides becoming millionaires and diving into a pool of gold Scrooge McDuck style). We’ll have fun – I promise – and who knows you may even learn something along the way. As the great Lady Gaga once said “give me a million reasons…” Lady, I plan to give you seven million.

You can listen to me being interviewed about the Millennium Problems here.

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