Monday, March 28, 2016

Here's To Amateurs... and Professionals at Play

Astronomy is often considered the best science for amateurs because over the centuries amateur or backyard astronomers have contributed so many important findings to the field. The heavens are so expansive that they offer many niches for even backyard astronomers to make significant discoveries, or be involved in "citizen" science.

Mathematics... not so much.  With its highly-specialized, technical and abstract content, math is usually not seen as a playground for non-professionals. Indeed many who try (and there ARE many) end up classified as "crackpots," their ideas or approaches so off-base and unworthy of attention.
In recent times there is the famous case of "homemaker" Marjorie Rice who, playing around with tessellations, made important contributions to the geometry of tilings. And there are a few others... but the number is small. In the last couple decades, how many "proofs" have come along for the Riemann Hypothesis or other "Millennium" problems from people dabbling way outside their competency, largely wasting time and energy.

I mention all this because of my ongoing fascination with the recent findings regarding the "pattern" of consecutive prime last-digits. Robert Lemke Oliver and Kannan Soundararajan who discovered it are professional mathematicians, but it is the sort of thing that could have been discovered by amateurs just 'playing around' with prime numbers (as people often do).  Indeed, a common response to their finding has been, 'HOW did this go UNnoticed so long!?" In this day of Mathematica and similar programs it seems the door is wide open to all manner of analyses of prime number digits/succession/position that amateurs could imagine doing -- it might well take a trained number theorist or other specialist to explain a given outcome, but just generating that outcome might be do-able by brute-force amateurs.

I've been following Mike Lawler, inspired by Oliver/Soundararajan's work, play with prime triplets for the last week with results that, while beyond my comprehension, could hold significance for others (Mike is not an "amateur," as he has a math PhD., but he is not a number theorist or prime specialist, and what he is doing could be done by a non-math PhD.). Current posts for his work are here:

And he has been recording his results (looking at prime-last-digit-triples in billion increments) on an ongoing Google spreadsheet here:

This isn't for everyone, but for those mesmerized by the mysterious way prime numbers weave their way through our integer system, tantalizing us with their secrets and their non-random randomness(!), it can almost be addictive (beware). So here's to amateurs and professionals alike playing in that heady world of pure math, never quite knowing what they might find, where it might lead, or what it might mean.

...ADDENDUM:  after posting this, Mike put up another entry summarizing somewhat his experience thus far:

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