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A Retiree Discovers an Elusive Math Proof—And Nobody Notices

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Thomas Royen at his home in Schwalbach am Taunus, Germany.RÜDIGER NEHMZOW/QUANTA MAGAZINE

AS HE WAS brushing his teeth on the morning of July 17, 2014, Thomas Royen, a little-known retired German statistician, suddenly lit upon the proof of a famous conjecture at the intersection of geometry, probability theory, and statistics that had eluded top experts for decades.

Known as the Gaussian correlation inequality (GCI), the conjecture originated in the 1950s, was posed in its most elegant form in 1972 and has held mathematicians in its thrall ever since. “I know of people who worked on it for 40 years,” said Donald Richards, a statistician at Pennsylvania State University. “I myself worked on it for 30 years.”

Royen hadn’t given the Gaussian correlation inequality much thought before the “raw idea” for how to prove it came to him over the bathroom sink. Formerly an employee of a pharmaceutical company, he had moved on to a small technical university in Bingen, Germany, in 1985 in order to have more time to improve the statistical formulas that he and other industry statisticians used to make sense of drug-trial data. In July 2014, still at work on his formulas as a 67-year-old retiree, Royen found that the GCI could be extended into a statement about statistical distributions he had long specialized in. On the morning of the 17th, he saw how to calculate a key derivative for this extended GCI that unlocked the proof. “The evening of this day, my first draft of the proof was written,” he said.

Not knowing LaTeX, the word processer of choice in mathematics, he typed up his calculations in Microsoft Word, and the following month he posted his paper to the academic preprint site arxiv.org. He also sent it to Richards, who had briefly circulated his own failed attempt at a proof of the GCI a year and a half earlier. “I got this article by email from him,” Richards said. “And when I looked at it I knew instantly that it was solved.”

Upon seeing the proof, “I really kicked myself,” Richards said. Over the decades, he and other experts had been attacking the GCI with increasingly sophisticated mathematical methods, certain that bold new ideas in convex geometry, probability theory or analysis would be needed to prove it. Some mathematicians, after years of toiling in vain, had come to suspect the inequality was actually false. In the end, though, Royen’s proof was short and simple, filling just a few pages and using only classic techniques. Richards was shocked that he and everyone else had missed it. “But on the other hand I have to also tell you that when I saw it, it was with relief,” he said. “I remember thinking to myself that I was glad to have seen it before I died.” He laughed. “Really, I was so glad I saw it.”

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