Pitt Mathematician Nets Award for Cracking a 400-year-old Problem

Issue Date: 
January 16, 2007

Thomas C. Hales winner of the American Mathematics Society’s inaugural David P. Robbins Award

In another nod to his success at unraveling a 400-year-old math mystery, Pitt Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Mathematics in the School of Arts and Sciences Thomas C. Hales took home an award for his unique math research from the American Mathematics Society (AMS) during the society’s Joint Mathematics Meetings in New Orleans Jan. 6.

The society’s David P. Robbins Award recognizes Hales’ work on the Kepler conjecture, a posit that spheres can most efficiently be packed in a pyramid shape. Johannes Kepler, a German astronomer and mathematician, could not prove his idea when he published it in 1611. Several people attempted to prove Kepler correct over the centuries, but they never completed the task.

Hales shook the mathematics world when he offered the long-elusive proof in 1998. In 2005, the academic journal Annals of Mathematics published a short version of Hales’ work titled “A Proof of the Kepler Conjecture” (the full version ran in the July 2006 edition of the journal Discrete and Computational Geometry). Reviewers spent five years vetting Hales’ proof. The long process spurred Hales to undertake what he calls the Flyspeck Project to develop computer technology that would automatically check the correctness of long, complicated proofs. The goal is to get away from the “pencil and paper” method of proof checking, Hales said. Flyspeck could take up to 20 years to complete.

The AMS award honors Hales’ 2005 article. He shares the award with Samuel P. Ferguson of the National Security Agency, who coauthored part of the paper. Hales and Ferguson are the first recipients of the award, which was established in 2005 to recognize fresh research in algebra and discrete math. The $5,000 prize is awarded every three years. In recognizing Hales and Ferguson, the AMS called their work “a landmark achievement.”

Established more than 200 years ago, the AMS has approximately 30,000 members and promotes mathematics by highlighting its relevance to other fields.