During the past week, while at Hawaii for the IEEE 802.11 interim, I happened to glance this NY times article. The story is about a New Hampshire professor Yitang Zhang coming out with a recent proof on establishing a finite bound on the gap between prime numbers.  While browsing the details, there are more details emerging as several pieces of blog and articles and reviews are being written (and some are still being written). Now, looks like the claim is more or less accepted by pundits in the field, and termed as a beautiful mathematical breakthrough. As an outsider sitting with curiosity, I feel nice to scratch the surface of this new finding.

The subject surrounding this news is number theory, prime numbers to be precise. The question of interest is on the gap between adjacent prime numbers. We know that 2 and 3 are prime with a gap of 1, but this is truly a special case and unique per definition. The gap between 3 and 5 is 2. Similarly 5 and 7 differ by 2. One may have thought that, the gap between successive primes go up as we flee along the number line. Not quite. For example, we can see that there are a lot of pairs with a gap of 2.  The easy ones are (3, 5), (5, 7), (11, 13), (17, 19), (29, 31), (41, 43), (59, 61), (71, 73), (101, 103), (107, 109), (137, 139) and the list goes on. It was conjectured that there are infinitely many such pairs, but the proof of that is not quite as easy as yet! It is known that there are precisely 808,675,888,577,436 below 10^{18}, but infinity is still a lot far from 10^{18}! An interesting quest was to really prove that there are infinitely many twin primes, but this still remain as an open conjecture.

Now the new discovery by Zhang is not quite proving the twin conjecture, but a close relative of that. Twin conjectures are strictly about prime pairs separated by 2. A related question is, how about prime pairs p and q which are separated by k where k could be a finite number. When k=2, then we have the  special case of the classical twin prime case. Can we at least prove mathematically that there exists infinitely many primes such as (p,q=p+k) for some $k$. If so,  what is the smallest k where this holds true? Zhang now has a proof that for k as small as 70 million. Mathematically, if we denote p(n) is the nth prime, then the new claim says (stated crisply in the paper abstract),

\lim_{n \to \infty} {} \left(p_{n+1}-p_{n}\right) <70 \times 10^{6}.

70 million is still a large gap, but as Dorian Goldfeld says, is still finite and nothing compared to infinity! In future, it is not unlikely that  we may get to see this gap coming down and perhaps to the best case of k=2. Who knows?

The result is still interesting, even to general interesting folks like us. This kind of says that, the gap between prime numbers is worst case bounded by a finite number. If we really plot the prime numbers, then we will see a saturation like behavior!  Like many other things at asymptotic (for example, the eigenvalues of a large random matrices exhibit very interesting properties, when the size goes to infinity), things at infinity may exhibit some charm, after all!

The  paper is accessible here, but as expected the proof is hard (for me at least). Hopefully we will have some diluted explanation of its essence from experts in the coming days. Already,Terrence Tao had this sktech, a couple of weeks ago on his google+ feed. Over the last week or so, finer details on the new break through are still emerging. Terry Tao also has initiated an online Wiki collaboration in an effort to improve upon from this work (For experts that is, not for me!).

Congratulations Professor Zhang.