Corrected Math News: Iraq-born teen cracks maths puzzle
Over the last few days, the internet news has been filled with stories of an Iraq-born 16-year-old boy who “cracked the mystery of the Bernoulli numbers”. This has of course been promptly been picked up by dozens of blogs and regurgitated all over the place. However, if you’re mathematically-inclined like me, this might lead you to wonder “there was a mystery of the Bernoulli numbers?” Well, wonder no more, because no there was not. The formula for Bn, the nth Bernoulli number, that was “discovered” by the boy is as follows:
This formula was originally derived by a mathematician named Julius Worpitzky in 1883. Some sources have tried half-heartedly to correct the article by appending a sentence to the bottom of the story:
Later, a clarification was given‚ by the mathematical community that the probable solution to this century old problem was available in mathematical circuits though not openly available to all.
The problem is that this isn’t even true; the “probable solution” (what does that mean, exactly?) was not under some mysterious mathematical lock-and-key. It was well-known and even included on the Wikipedia page describing the Bernoulli numbers (at the time of this writing, it is about halfway down the page under the section titled “Connection with the Worpitzky number”). Uppsala University has even issued an official statement saying that the news articles are false.
So while the boy’s derivation of the formula is indeed impressive considering his age (if he did indeed derive it himself rather than following the steps outlined on the wiki page), the story about this “puzzle” being solved is almost entirely false.
Update [June 6, 2009]: The Mathematical Association of America has now posted an article about this same topic.