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The 500-Page Proof That Only One Mathematician Can Understand

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Nearly four years after Shinichi Mochizuki unveiled an imposing set of papers that could revolutionize the theory of numbers, other mathematicians have yet to understand his work or agree on its validity.

Although they have made modest progress.

Some four dozen mathematicians converged last week for a rare opportunity to hear Mochizuki present his own work at a conference on his home turf, Kyoto University’s Research Institute for Mathematical Sciences (RIMS).

Mochizuki is “less isolated than he was before the process got started”, says Kiran Kedlaya, a number theorist at the University of California, San Diego.

Although at first Mochizuki’s papers, which stretch over more than 500 pages, seemed like an impenetrable jungle of formulae.

Experts have slowly discerned a strategy in the proof that the papers describe, and have been able to zero in on particular passages that seem crucial, he says.

Mochizuki’s theorem aims to prove the important abc conjecture, which dates back to 1985 and relates to prime numbers — whole numbers that cannot be evenly divided by any smaller number except by 1.

The conjecture comes in a number of different forms, but explains how the primes that divide two numbers, a and b, are related to those that divide their sum, c.

If Mochizuki’s proof is correct, it would have repercussions across the entire field, says Dimitrov.

When you work in number theory, you cannot ignore the abc conjecture,” he says.

This is why all number theorists eagerly wanted to know about Mochizuki’s approach.”

For example, Dimitrov showed in January how, assuming the correctness of Mochizuki’s proof, one might be able to derive many other important results, including a completely independent proof of the celebrated Fermat’s last theorem.

But the purported proof, which Mochizuki first posted on his webpage in August 2012, builds on more than a decade of previous work in which Mochizuki worked in virtual isolation and developed a novel and extremely abstract branch of mathematics.

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