How Yitang Zhang rose from obscurity and a disadvantaged youth to mathematical celebrity

Thomas Lin writes: As a boy in Shanghai, China, Yitang Zhang believed he would someday solve a great problem in mathematics. In 1964, at around the age of nine, he found a proof of the Pythagorean theorem, which describes the relationship between the lengths of the sides of any right triangle. He was 10 when he first learned about two famous number theory problems, Fermat’s last theorem and the Goldbach conjecture. While he was not yet aware of the centuries-old twin primes conjecture, he was already taken with prime numbers, often described as indivisible “atoms” that make up all other natural numbers.

But soon after, the anti-intellectual Cultural Revolution shuttered schools and sent him and his mother to the countryside to work in the fields. Because of his father’s troubles with the Communist Party, Zhang was also unable to attend high school. For 10 years, he worked as a laborer, reading books on math, history and other subjects when he could.

Not long after the revolution ended, Zhang, then 23, enrolled at Peking University and became one of China’s top math students. After completing his master’s at the age of 29, he was recruited by T. T. Moh to pursue a doctorate at Purdue University in Lafayette, Ind. But, promising though he was, after defending his dissertation in 1991 he could not find academic work as a mathematician.

In George Csicsery’s new documentary film Counting From Infinity, Zhang discusses his difficulties at Purdue and in the years that followed. He says his doctoral adviser never wrote recommendation letters for him. (Moh has written that Zhang did not ask for any.) Zhang admits that his shy, quiet demeanor didn’t help in building relationships or making himself known to the wider math community. During this initial job-hunting period, Zhang sometimes lived in his car, according to his friend Jacob Chi, music director of the Pueblo Symphony in Colorado. In 1992, Zhang began working at another friend’s Subway sandwich restaurant. For about seven years he worked odd jobs for various friends.

In 1999, at 44, Zhang caught a break. [Continue reading…]

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