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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Of Primes and Probability


Two bits for a Wednesday...:

1) In a fascinating long-read for Quanta Magazine, Erica Klarreich covers the astounding progress so far made in the "prime number gap" of the Twin Primes Conjecture, in just six months since Yitang Zhang postulated a limit to the gap of 70 million!:

http://tinyurl.com/pw6hyyz

James Maynard, a post-doc, has wrestled the gap down to no more than 600, well below the result that even Terry Tao's Polymath group had yet achieved.

an excerpt to whet your appetite:
"Zhang’s work and, to a lesser degree, Maynard’s fits the archetype of the solitary mathematical genius, working for years in the proverbial garret until he is ready to dazzle the world with a great discovery. The Polymath project couldn’t be more different — fast and furious, massively collaborative, fueled by the instant gratification of setting a new world record.
"For Zhang, working alone and nearly obsessively on a single hard problem brought a huge payoff. Would he recommend that approach to other mathematicians? 'It’s hard to say,' he said. 'I choose my own way, but it’s only my way.'
"Tao actively discourages young mathematicians from heading down such a path, which he has called  'a particularly dangerous occupational hazard' that has seldom worked well, except for established mathematicians with a secure career and a proven track record. However, he said in an interview, the solitary and collaborative approaches each have something to offer mathematics.
“ 'It’s important to have people who are willing to work in isolation and buck the conventional wisdom,' Tao said. Polymath, by contrast, is 'entirely groupthink.' Not every math problem would lend itself to such collaboration, but this one did."

2) I mentioned a couple of posts back that in the Preface to his new book ("Will You Be Alive 10 Years From Now?") Paul Nahin gives an example of a Marilyn vos Savant column where the famous Mensa-ite gives the WRONG answer to a math question and sometime later corrects herself. The question, and her initial ill-fated answer ran as follows:
Q.: "I manage a drug-testing program for an organization with 400 employees. Every three months, a random-number generator selects 100 names for testing. Afterward, these names go back into the selection pool. Obviously, the probability of an employee being chosen in one quarter is 25 percent. But what’s the likelihood of being chosen over the course of a year?"

A.: "The probability remains 25 percent, despite the repeated testing. One might think that as the number of tests grows, the likelihood of being chosen increases, but as long as the size of the pool remains the same, so does the probability. Goes against your intuition, doesn’t it?"
Nahin points out that the actual probability of being chosen at some point during the four quarters of testing works out to 0.6836, considerably greater than Marilyn's 0.25.

In a later column Marilyn 'fessed up, "My neurons must have been napping" and corrected herself:

http://www.parade.com/45916/marilynvossavant/22-sunday-column-2/

You can also see the math involved at this Forum site where the problem was discussed:

http://www.aiqus.com/questions/34413/ask-marilyn-new-probability-question-controversy


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