300 Year-Old Newtonian Physics Problem Elegantly Solved by Sixteen Year-Old in East Germany
May 27th, 2012
By Bojan Pancevski
An Indian-born teenager has won a research award for solving a mathematical problem first posed by Sir Isaac Newton more than 300 years ago that has baffled mathematicians ever since.
The solution devised by Shouryya Ray, 16, makes it possible to calculate exactly the path of a projectile under gravity and subject to air resistance.
Shouryya, who lives in Dresden, eastern Germany, came up with the solutions to this and a second mathematical riddle while working on a school project.
He is being hailed as a genius in the German press, but attributes his achievement to “curiosity and schoolboy naivety.”
“When it was explained to us that the problems had no solutions, I thought to myself: well, there’s no harm in trying,” he said.
The problems he resolved are from the field of dynamics. The first, dealing with the movement of projectiles through the air, was posed by Newton in the 17th century. The second, which relates to the collision of a body with a wall, was posed in the 19th century.
Only partial solutions had been discovered up to now, requiring simplified assumptions or calculations by computer. Shouryya’s elegant solutions could contribute to greater precision in fields such as ballistics.
Shouryya’s family moved to Germany when he was 12 after his father Subhashis Ray, an engineer, got a job at a technical college. Shouryya spoke no German when he arrived but has mastered the language and is due to take the German equivalent of A-levels this week, two years ahead of his peers.
“Ray’s accomplishment is impressive and we are particularly proud of his background as it highlights the achievements of migrants across language and cultural barriers,” said the Youth Research Foundation, which gave him the award.
A keen cricketer, Shouryya cites his father as his inspiration and says he instilled a “hunger for mathematics” after teaching him calculus at the age of six.
Subhashis Ray said he was no longer able to keep up with his son’s mathematical prowess, however. “He never discussed his project with me before it was finished and the mathematics he used are far beyond my reach,” he said.
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The Sunday Times, London