UNH Math Professor Receives 2014 MacArthur 'Genius' Award After Prime Number Discovery

Sep 17, 2014

: University of New Hampshire professor of mathematics Yitang “Tom” Zhang is a 2014 MacArthur Fellow.
Credit Lisa Nugent / UNH Photographic Services

He says he may just give the $625,000 award to his wife.  

Yitang Zhang, a professor of analytic number theory at the University of New Hampshire, is one of 21 artists, scholars and professionals  to receive a prestigious MacArthur "genius" grant this year.  

Zhang rose to celebrity unexpectedly last year after discovering a finite bound on the gaps between prime numbers. The discovery is a major breakthrough on a subject that has bedeviled mathematicians since ancient times.

Ed Hinson, Zhang's department chair, says Zhang has been a lecturer since 1999, with no research responsibilities or research funding. "I believe he was literally under the radar screen of almost everyone," says Hinson.

Since his discovery, Zhang has been promoted to full professor.  He says he’s been offered positions at a number of other universities in both the United States and China. "But," he says, "I prefer to stay here.  I love New Hampshire!"

This year there are 21 recipients of the MacArthur award. Each receives a stipend of $625,000, paid over five years, with no strings attached. With his promotion, the MacArthur grant and various other prizes, Zhang says he’s simply made too much money this year. "I prefer to have a simple life," Zhang says, "I usually don't like to spend so much money.  I do not have time to spend so much money."

When asked what he plans to do with the unexpected cash, Zhang says he's not sure. "I may just give [the money] to my wife."

Zhang grew up during the cultural revolution in China, and was unable to finish high school. He says he bought math books and taught himself the subject as a young person. Later, he got his Bachelors and Masters degrees at Peking University, and a Ph.D. from Purdue, in Indiana. Zhang received his B.S. and M.S. from Peking University, and his Ph.D. from Purdue University.  His “bounded prime gap” theory was published in the Annals of Mathematics last year.

The MacArthur Foundation provides this video: