- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 11, 2003

J. MIchael Bishop’s How to Win the Nobel Prize: An Unexpected Life In Science (Harvard University Press, $27.95, 320 pages) is a misleading title. We must still wait a while — don’t hold your breath — before the publisher of the popular series of “how-to” books brings out a volume called “Winning the Nobel Prize for Dummies.” Few people believe that dummies win Nobel prizes, and Dr. Bishop is certainly not one. More a series of extended essays than a unified work, the book begins with a history of the Nobel Prizes, enlivened by an entertaining account of Dr. Bishop’s experiences as a Nobelist, and continues with an autobiographical sketch, an account of his Nobel-winning work, an outline of molecular biology, a historical summary of infectious disease and how to control it, and a discussion of some of the current controversial issues involving the role of science in society.

Dr. Bishop calls his career “an unexpected life in science” because, unlike many scientists, he did not discover his vocation as a child. Born in 1936 in rural Pennsylvania, the son of a Lutheran pastor, he spent his elementary school years in a two-room schoolhouse, moved on to a small high school and then to Gettysburg College. When he graduated, he was still so naive that he wrote to Harvard Medical School and asked if he might visit the campus so he could see how it compared with his other option, the University of Pennsylvania.

This letter so amused the admissions office that they posted it on the bulletin board for all to see, but Dr. Bishop must have mightily impressed the Harvard medical faculty in other ways as well, because he was not only admitted, but allowed to follow his own path, spending his second year doing independent research and skipping most of the required fourth-year courses to study viruses.

After two years as a house physician at Mass. General Hospital, he left the practice of clinical medicine to pursue research at the National Institutes of Health, spent a year in Germany, and in 1968 returned to America to join the University of California at San Francisco, where he has been ever since. Shortly thereafter, Harold Varmus, another late developer who took up medicine after receiving a master’s degree in English literature, arrived as a postdoctoral fellow, and the two began an exceptional scientific partnership that over the next 15 years turned UCSF into a powerhouse in molecular biology.

The two men shared the 1989 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for their discovery that normal genes can cause cancer, Dr. Bishop’s book is gracefully written and embellished with enlightening illustrations and literary and poetic quotations, demonstrating the persistence of his youthful ambition to become a renaissance man. His artful self-portrait presents him as a modest, good-natured fellow, although in his humble way he manages to even a few scores. He mentions that one of his colleagues was foolish enough to write a note wagering three-to-one odds that Dr. Bishop would never win the Nobel Prize, and tells us that the colleague was mortified when Dr. Bishop projected a copy of the bet during a lecture. He reproduces the note in the book.

The prominence of the Nobel Prize derives in no small part from the large sum of money associated with it, and perhaps the same phenomenon accounts for the appearance within a few months of at least three books dealing with the Riemann Hypothesis, a mathematical statement originally proposed in 1859, the proof of which is regarded, at least by the books’ authors, as “the greatest unsolved problem in mathematics. It is one of seven problems appearing on the list of so-called “Millennium Problems” compiled in the year 2000 by a group of leading mathematicians in conjunction with the Clay Mathematics Institute, which promises a reward of a million dollars for a solution to each one.

• • •

Karl Sabbagh and Marcus du Sautoy both successfully explain the Riemann Hypothesis for readers with little or no knowledge of mathematics, explain some of its significance in the wider world of those who use mathematics, knowingly or unknowingly, in their everyday lives, explore the historical background of attempts to prove the hypothesis and provide often fascinating descriptions of the men (and, very occasionally, women) who have pursued the elusive proof.

Understanding the Riemann Hypothesis requires somewhat more mathematical background than the more famous Fermat’s Last Theorem of 1655, which was finally solved in the mid-1990s, earning Andrew Wiles world fame and a knighthood as well as a 75,000 Deutschmark prize that had sat unclaimed since 1908. The easily-comprehended Fermat’s Last Theorem deals only with positive integers — the natural numbers with which we all learn to count as toddlers — but understanding Riemann’s Hypothesis requires us to go into the world of complex numbers, those which include a multiple of i, the “imaginary number” is the square root of -1, .

Riemann proposed that a mathematical formula called Riemann’s zeta had the value zero only when s was a complex number with a real part equal to ?. So far, in recent years helped by computers, researchers have found a billion and a half solutions, none of which contradict Riemann’s Hypothesis., but that is not a mathematical proof.

Mr. Sabbagh, a Cambridge graduate turned science writer, and Mr. du Sautoy, an Oxford mathematics don, range over the same territory and discuss many of the same people, but follow different trails.

In The Riemann Hypothesis: The Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25, 318 pages) Mr. Sabbagh provides more of the mathematical detail, which he explains in simpler terms than does Mr. du Sautoy in In The Music Of The Primes: Searching To Solve The Greatest Mystery In Mathematics (HarperCollins, $24.95, 336 pages), while the latter focuses more on the bottom-line reason that the hypothesis is a hot topic, which is not simply the million-dollar reward.

The continued burgeoning of electronic commerce, he explains, is intimately connected with the ability to keep the confidentiality of information — particularly such information as account numbers and credit card numbers. The coding method that restricts this information to the sender and the authorized receiver relies on the extreme difficulty of factoring huge numbers that are the product of very large primes. Proof of Riemann’s Hypothesis would produce a huge sigh of relief from bankers and spymasters alike, whereas disproof would leave them with a huge headache.

The two authors each portray many of the notable mathematicians who have worked on the Riemann Hypothesis. Among the most fascinating figures limned by du Sautoy are the Cambridge mathematicians G.H. Hardy and J.H. Littlewood, a sort of academic odd couple who published their papers under both names, even when only one of them had done the work. Hardy combined militant atheism with an elaborate battery of superstitious practices designed to ward off divine retribution, while Littlewood spent his summer vacations with the wife of a local doctor.

The duo also collaborated fruitfully with Srinivasa Ramanujan, the self-taught Indian mathematical genius who spent a few years in Cambridge before he fatally succumbed to the English weather. Mr. Sabbagh spends many pages on Louis de Branges, a monomaniacal mathematician at Purdue University who has been working for years filling in the details of a proof of the Hypothesis. Because of his eccentricities, he is a lonely figure in the profession, but he cannot be dismissed because almost 20 years ago he proved the Bieberbach conjecture, another major problem that had remained unsolved for 68 years. Mr. Sabbagh includes an appendix outlining de Branges’s proposed proof.

Reading these two books is a good place to start if you feel inclined to chase after the million dollar prize. Even if you don’t, they are worth reading for the insight they give into a world quite alien to most non-mathematicians.

Jeffrey Marsh has written widely on scientific topics and public issues ranging from nuclear strategy to social policy.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide