Granite Geek: Could the Most Vexing Math Problems in History Get Solved in Peterborough?

Jan 20, 2016

The town of Peterborough has quietly become the administrative headquarters of the Clay Mathematics Institute, the nonprofit organization that’s seeking answers to seven of the problems that mathematicians have been wrestling with for years. The prize for solving any one of these problems is $1 million. But how did it end up in Peterborough, New Hampshire? Concord Monitor reporter David Brooks spoke with NHPR's Peter Biello. 

Why is Peterborough, New Hampshire now the headquarters for the Clay Mathematics Institute?

Because it doesn’t have much traffic.

Really, that’s it?

That’s it. Is that the end of our interview?

Yeah, go home now, David. Who decided that not having any traffic in Peterborough is a good reason to put this institute there?

Okay, let me back up slightly. So, Clay Mathematics Institute was founded by a man named Landon Clay, who is a Boston area business man. He’s a Harvard graduate, made a whole lot of money as head of an investment company called Eaton Vance, generally you see him on lists of richest Eastern Massachusetts businessmen.

He’s quite a philanthropist. He and his wife have given to a lot of organizations, many of them with scientific and technical aspects. And he founded the Clay Mathematics Institute in ’98, ’99, 2000, and it gives grants and establishes foundations for research mathematicians. These are people working on problems that you and I don’t even understand the question, and there isn’t always that much funding for them, because these aren’t problems that have obvious applications that, you know, intel is going to want. And part of that and the highest publicity aspect of that is the Millennium Problems, which is seven mathematics problems that have been unsolved for decades, sometimes centuries, and that they offer a million bucks, cool million bucks each, if you solve one.

Can you give us an example of one of these prize problems?

Not that either you or I would understand, but yeah. So, there’s one called P versus NP, which is basically a way to mathematically determine whether a problem is solvable by computers, theoretically solvable. There’s other ones that have to do with equations involving fluid dynamics, which are notoriously difficult. And then there’s one  I mention in my column called the Hodge conjecture, which I didn’t even understand it when I was typing it.

So, these are problems that, you know, never ever come up in real life.

Well, we may not be able to solve it, but apparently a Russian mathematician once solved one of these problems and he could have taken the million dollars, but he decided not to. Why?

So this happened in 2003. The mathematicians name is Grigori Perelman, and he solved what is known as the Poincaré Conjecture, which was probably the best known, I’d even heard of that one. And it was astonishing, he was amazed that he solved it, but he decided not to take the prize money for a variety of reasons: he didn’t like prizes, he thought other people deserved it, he’s not the most gregarious of human beings—in fact he came across, to be perfectly honest, as, you know, the weirdo mathematicians stereotype unfortunately that a lot of people have.

But, so at least one of the problems is solved. So, there’s six of them still out there for a million bucks each.

So, let’s say I solve one of these problems, I did pretty well in high school algebra. So, let’s say I can do this. I solve one of these, I want the million bucks, can I just go to Peterborough and collect, or?

You can, but you won’t be able to find the Clay Mathematics Institute, because there’s actually no sign for it. It’s housed in the same offices as another office of a company that oversees some of Mr. Clay’s businesses. They only just moved in last summer. In fact, nobody in town that I was able to find even knew they were there yet. And I didn’t even know they were there yet until a reader called me and said how come they’re in Peterborough?

So, you could knock on the door and say, "Hey I solved this!" but they’ll actually send you to Great Britain, because the mathematics portion of this institute is housed at the moment in Oxford University. They’re basically trying to get much more international with their focus and not just be an American institution.

It’s certainly fascinating that a lack of traffic is what brought the Clay Mathematics Institute here to New Hampshire.

Mr. Clay didn’t want to drive. So, his office used to be, it was originally in Cambridge when it was set up by folks at Harvard, then they moved down to Rhode Island just basically to save rent, but who wants to drive to Rhode Island? So, Mr. Clay has a house in Peterborough, so that’s why it’s in Peterborough.