5 of the world’s toughest unsolved maths problems


1. Separatrix Separation

A pendulum in motion can either swing from side to side or turn in a continuous circle. The point at which it goes from one type of motion to the other is called the separatrix, and this can be calculated in most simple situations. When the pendulum is prodded at an almost constant rate though, the mathematics falls apart. Is there an equation that can describe that kind of separatrix?

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2. Navier–Stokes

The Navier-Stokes equations, developed in 1822, are used to describe the motion of viscous fluid. Things like air passing over an aircraft wing or water flowing out of a tap. But there are certain situations in which it is unclear whether the equations fail or give no answer at all. Many mathematicians have tried – and failed – to resolve the matter, including Mukhtarbay Otelbaev of the Eurasian National University in Astana, Kazakhstan. In 2014, he claimed a solution but later retracted it. This is one problem that is worth more than just prestige. It is also one of the Millennium Prize Problems, which means anyone who solves it can claim $1 million in prize money.

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3. Exponents and dimensions

Imagine a squirt of perfume diffusing across a room. The movement of each molecule is random, a process called Brownian motion, even if the way the gas wafts overall is predictable. There is a mathematical language that can describe things like this, but not perfectly. It can provide exact solutions by bending its own rules or it can remain strict, but never quite arrive at the exact solution. Could it ever tick both boxes? That is what the exponents and dimensions problem asks. Apart from the quantum Hall conductance problem, this is the only one on the list that is at least partially solved. In 2000, Gregory Lawler, Oded Schramm and Wendelin Werner proved that exact solutions to two problems in Brownian motion can be found without bending the rules. It earned them a Fields medal, the maths equivalent of a Nobel prize. More recently, Stanislav Smirnov at the University of Geneva in Switzerland solved a related problem, which resulted in him being awarded the Fields medal in 2010.

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4. Impossibility theorems

There are plenty of mathematical expressions that have no exact solution. Take one of the most famous numbers ever, pi, which is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. Proving that it was impossible for pi’s digits after the decimal point to ever end was one of the greatest contributions to maths. Physicists similarly say that it is impossible to find solutions to certain problems, like finding the exact energies of electrons orbiting a helium atom. But can we prove that impossibility?

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5. Spin glass

To understand this problem, you need to know about spin, a quantum mechanical property of atoms and particles like electrons, which underlies magnetism. You can think of it like an arrow that can point up or down. Electrons inside blocks of materials are happiest if they sit next to electrons that have the opposite spin, but there are some arrangements where that isn’t possible. In these frustrated magnets, spins often flip around randomly in a way that, it turns out, is a useful model of other disordered systems including financial markets. But we have limited ways of mathematically describing how systems like this behave. This spin glass question asks if we can find a good way of doing it.

Author: Benjamin Skuse Newscientist.com