Million-Dollar Assault on Goldbach

It's about as simple as math problems come, but the Goldbach Conjecture has stumped mathematicians for more than 250 years. And now, thanks to two publishing companies, there's a $1 million bounty on its head.

In 1742, Christian Goldbach, math tutor to Tsar Peter II, guessed that any even number greater than two can be written as the sum of two prime numbers. (Prime numbers are those that can be divided only by themselves or 1.) Thus, for example, 24 is the sum of 11 and 13. While it's easy to take an individual number and figure out what two primes you need--computers have done this for all even numbers up to 400 trillion--it's incredibly difficult to prove that Goldbach's guess holds true for all of the infinite host of even numbers. Chinese mathematician Chen Jing-Run has come the closest so far; he proved that any even number is equal to a prime plus the product of two primes. (Take 24 again: It can be represented as 3 + 21, which is 3 × 7.) But close isn't good enough in mathematics, so the original conjecture remains unproven.

On 15 March, the British and American publishers of mathematician Apostolos Doxiadis's new novel, Uncle Petros and Goldbach's Conjecture, announced they will pay $1 million to anyone who can prove Goldbach's conjecture within 2 years. More precisely, the publishers' insurers will pay the $1 million. "It was very difficult for the underwriter to figure out what the odds were" of someone coming up with a valid solution, says Karen Rinaldi, an editor with Bloomsbury USA, the book's American publisher. But she declined to say what odds were decided on.

The publishers have lined up a panel of six mathematicians to pore through reams of proofs for subtle errors--an extremely labor-intensive process. "We're sure going to regret it like crazy," says Rinaldi, "but it's an interesting way to publish a book." The rules of the contest can be found at www.faber.co.uk.

Posted in Math