Goldbach’s Conjecture: easy but hard

Often in Mathematics problems that are easy to state turn out to be extremely difficult to solve. Two hundred and seventy-five years ago, Goldbach wrote a letter to the famous Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler in which he wrote the simple statement:

“Every even integer greater than 2 can be expressed as the sum of two primes.”

Just in case you are not up to speed with your maths (and let’s face it why would you be if you’re not a mathematician), let’s break this statement down. The even integers are the numbers divisible by two: 2, 4, 6, 8, …, 256, … and so on. The prime numbers are the ones that can only be obtained by multiplying one by themselves. For example, 3 and 5 are prime numbers because 3=1×3 and 5=1×5 and they have no other representations as a product of two numbers. However, 6 for instance is not prime because 6=1×6=2×3. In fact, all even integers, greater than 2 that were mentioned above, are not primes because they are all divisible by 2 and therefore can be represented as a product of two numbers in at least two ways: 4=1×4=2×2, 6=1×6=2×3, 8=1×8=2×4 etc.

And so, to Goldbach’s conjecture. It says that all even numbers: 4, 6, 8, 10, … can be written as a sum of two primes. Let’s see a couple of examples:







A nice way to represent the conjecture visually is through a “pyramid” and because we all love pretty pictures let’s see how this magic happens.

First, we write all of the prime numbers on two of the sides of a triangle as below: 2, 3, 5, 7 etc. We then draw a line leaving each prime number which is parallel to the opposite side of the triangle (stick with me), and finally at the points of intersection of these lines, we write the sum of the numbers. It sounds more complicated than it is as you’ll see with the following example. In the picture below, take the blue line coming out of the number 7 on the left and the red line coming out from the number 11 on the right. They intersect at 18 because 11+7=18. This means that the even integer 18 can be represented as a sum of the two prime numbers 11 and 7. If you look at the intersections of all of the red and blue lines in the pyramid, you’ll see that we actually get all of the even numbers. In other words, any even integer can be written as the sum of two prime numbers, and we can see what those two numbers are by finding the corresponding intersection on our diagram. This is Goldbach’s Conjecture.


It is not very difficult to show that a small even number greater than 2 is the sum of two prime numbers – either by finding the corresponding point on the picture or by trying all of the possibilities. Let’s take 96. We start by checking the smallest prime number 3. 96=3+93, but 93 is not a prime, because 93=1×93=3×31. We continue with the next prime – 5. 96=5+91, which again doesn’t work because 91=1×91=7×13. Next, we try with 7: 96=7+89. Since 89 is a prime, we have obtained a representation of the number 96 as a sum of two primes.

We were able to quickly check whether 96 satisfies Goldbach’s conjecture because the number is relatively small. It becomes much harder to make these checks for larger numbers. It’s been verified with the use of a computer that the conjecture is true for numbers as big as 4×1018 and this is why the conjecture is believed to be true, but we do not yet have a formal mathematical proof. And being mathematicians, we cannot say something is true until we can prove it.

There have of course been many efforts over the last 275 years to try to prove the conjecture, most of which followed one of two routes. Either by proving that all even integers can be represented as a sum of some number of primes – as a sum of 6 primes (1995, Ramare) and as a sum of 4 primes (Herald Helfgott) – or by proving that almost all even integers can be written as a sum of 2 primes. But, as of yet, the secret formula required to unlock the proof of Goldbach’s Conjecture remains elusive.

You may be wondering why on earth mathematicians are spending their time and effort to prove this seemingly random result about prime numbers? Is it really that important? Whilst you may have a valid point about the applications of this particular conjecture, the value in proving such a result is not in the statement itself, but rather in the new methods, theories and techniques that will need to be developed to solve the problem. So, in 20, 10 or even 2 years from now when you hear that Goldbach’s conjecture has been proved, you should be happy not because we now know for sure that it’s true, but rather because some incredible new area of mathematics has been developed in the process. And who knows, this new area of maths may even pose a new, even more complicated conjecture that will occupy mathematicians for the next 275 years…

Mariya Delyakova

Complex Numbers – they don’t have to be complex!

The idea of complex numbers stems from a question that bugged mathematicians for thousands of years: what is the square root of -1? That is, which number do you multiply by itself to get -1?

Such a simple question has blossomed into a vast mathematical theory, for the simple reason that the answer isn’t real! It can’t be 1, as 1 * 1 = 1; it can’t be -1, as -1 * -1 = 1; whichever number you multiply by itself, you can’t get a negative number. Up until the 16th century, almost everyone ignored this issue; perhaps they were afraid of the implications it could bring. But then, gradually, people began to realise that there was a whole new world of mathematics waiting to be discovered if they faced up to the question.

In order to explain this apparent gap in maths, the idea of an ‘imaginary’ number was introduced. The prolific Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler first used the letter i to represent the square root of -1, and as with most of his ideas, it stuck. Now i isn’t something that you’ll see in everyday life in relation to physical quantities, such as money. If you’re lucky enough to have money in your bank account, then you’ll see a positive number on your bank statement. If, as is the case for most students, you currently owe money to the bank (for example, if you have an overdraft), then your statement will display a negative number. However, because i is an ‘imaginary’ unit, it is neither ‘positive’ nor ‘negative’ in this sense, and so it won’t crop up in these situations.

Helpfully, you can add, subtract, multiply and divide using i in the same way as with any other numbers. By doing so, we expand the idea of imaginary numbers to the idea of complex numbers.

Take two real numbers a and b – these are the type that we’re used to dealing with.

They could be positive, negative, whole numbers, fractions, whatever.

A complex number is then formed by taking the number a + b * i. Let’s call this number z.

We say that a is the real part of z, and b is the imaginary part of z.

Any number that you can make in this way is a complex number.

For example, let a = -3 and b = 2; then -3 + 2*i, which we write as -3 + 2i, is a complex number.

As we saw before, complex numbers don’t actually pop up in ‘real-life’ situations. So why do we care about them? The reason is that complex numbers have some very neat properties that allow them to be used in all sorts of mathematical contexts. So even though you may not see the number i in everyday life, it’s very likely that there are complex numbers involved behind the scenes wherever you look. Let’s have a quick glance at some of these properties.

The key observation is that the square of i is -1, that is, i * i = -1.

We can use this fact to multiply complex numbers together.

Let’s look at a concrete example: multiply 2 + 2i by 4 – 3i.

We use the grid method for multiplying out brackets:

  4 -3i
2 2 * 4 = 8 2 * -3i = -6i
+2i 4 * 2i = 8i 2i * -3i = -6 * i * i = -6 * -1 = 6

Adding the results together, we get (2 + 2i)(4 – 3i) = 8 + 6 – 6i + 8i = 14 + 2i.

Therefore, multiplying two complex numbers has given us another complex number!

This is true in general, and it turns out to be very handy. In fact, Carl Friedrich Gauss proved a very famous result – known as the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra because it’s so important – that effectively tells us that the solutions to all equations can be written as complex numbers. This is extremely useful because we know that we don’t have to go any ‘deeper’ into numbers; once you’ve got your head around complex numbers, you can proudly declare that you’ve mastered them all!

Because of this fundamental theorem, our little friend i pops up all over the place in physics, engineering, computer science, and of course, in all sorts of areas of maths. While it may only be imaginary, its applications can be very real, from air traffic control, to animating characters in films. It plays a really important role in much of theoretical mathematics, which in turn is used in almost every scientific discipline. And to think, all of this stemmed from an innocent-looking question about -1; what were they so scared of?!

Kai Laddiman

A mathematicians age is but a number…

The third puzzle in the new feature from Tom Rocks Maths – check out the question below and send your answers to @tomrocksmaths on TwitterFacebook, Instagram or via the contact form on my website. The answer to the last puzzle can be found here.

Can you place the (extremely) famous mathematicians below in order of the year that they were born, earliest first? Bonus points for telling me what they studied.

WARNING: answer below image so scroll slowly to avoid revealing it accidentally.


b. Fermat: 1601-1665 – The French mathematician behind the infamous ‘Last Theorem’ written in the margins of his copy of Arithmetica in 1637. The theorem was finally shown to be true by Andrew Wiles 358 years later.

d. Newton: 1643-1727 – Most famous for his formulation of the Law of Gravity, but he also made significant contributions to geometry and is credited with developing calculus alongside Leibniz.

a. Euler: 1707-1783 – He worked on every almost every area of maths, but perhaps most famous for Euler’s number e=2.718… and Euler’s identity e  + 1 = 0.

c. Gauss: 1777-1855 – Like Euler, Gauss worked across all branches of maths and made significant contributions to Statistics with the Gaussian Distribution and physics with Gauss’ Flux Law.

Funbers e

Funbers continues with the number ‘e’ – also known as 2.718… or my favourite number. It represents the natural rate of growth and is particularly important when it comes to finances and working out the best way to invest your money…

You can listen to all of the Funbers episodes from BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and BBC Radio Oxford here.

Up ↑