Liu Lu, a junior who solved the two-decade-old Seetapun Enigma. "I'm not a born genius...It is the accumulation of knowledge from my daily studies that prepared me for the solution," Liu said (CFP)
Liu Lu, a junior majoring in applied mathematics at the Changsha-based Central South University (CSU) in central China's Hunan Province, attracted worldwide attention recently by successfully solving the Seetapun Enigma, a notoriously difficult mathematical problem.
Liu found a way to solve the problem in October 2010, when he successfully proved a negative answer to the conjecture. He submitted his findings to the Journal of Symbolic Logic, an authoritative international academic journal, under the penname of Liu Jiayi. He won lavish praise from its editor in chief, Denis Hirschfeldt, an expert in mathematical logic and a professor at the University of Chicago in the United States.
"As someone whose research into this problem finally came to nothing, I am very delighted to see its final solution, especially with such a wonderful demonstration," Hirschfeldt wrote to Liu.
Another young talent, the 16-year-old mathematics prodigy Zhang Xinyang, came into the spotlight too, when he became the youngest PhD student in China this September.
It seems that China has an abundance of math geniuses, given the frequent reports of prodigies and China' success at international math competitions. However, the stark reality is that only a handful of world-class mathematicians are from China.
While some said what China's math geniuses lack is the access to instruction by world-class mathematicians, others pointed out pushy parents and the rigid education system have stifled their growth.
Skinny, pale and bespectacled, Liu exudes quiet determination. The young man from Dalian, northeast China's Liaoning Province, told Xinhua News Agency that he was not born a math talent and neither of his parents was involved in mathematics.
But he unknotted a problem that has puzzled the international math community for more than two decades. The Seetapun Enigma, a conjecture put forward by English mathematical logician David Seetapun in the 1990s, is a problem of reverse mathematics.
Speaking of his efforts to crack the Seetapun Enigma, Liu recalled, "It was more like a flash of inspiration when I was pondering the problem. In fact, it did not take me much time to demonstrate it."
"Maybe it is the accumulation of knowledge from my daily studies that prepared me for the solution," he said. "I was never a born genius, but I found my passion for the subject in middle school and never stopped cultivating it."
Liu started studying mathematical logic when he was a sophomore at CSU. For Liu, the complex theories that boggled the minds of his classmates were simply fun and intriguing puzzles to be solved.
In his classmates' eyes, Liu is a math genius, as he is able to transform complicated problems into simple and elegant equations and then provide radical solutions. Many, however, don't realize the sheer amount of hard work and toil he puts into his studies.
Liu was later invited to the Academic Conference on Mathematical Logic at the University of Chicago and delivered a 40-minute speech on September 16. He was the only Asian college student present at the event.
Amazed at what Liu did, three senior academicians at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) have recommended the 22-year-old for postgraduate researches, a year ahead of time. It is reported that CSU will admit Liu to successive postgraduate and doctoral programs under the guidance of Hou Zhenting, one of the top mathematicians in China as well as a professor at CSU.
"I'd like to encourage Liu to graduate sooner than next year," Hou said after meeting Liu. Hou also wrote recommendation letters to the Ministry of Education suggesting Liu's instructors prepare him for early graduation through intensive academic training.
Liu's case reflects the need for authorities to reform China's rigid exam-oriented education system.
As products of such a system, "students usually don't question what they are taught," said Li Banghe, a CAS academician, adding that many students in China are not able to conduct independent research.
But there are growing exceptions like Liu. As a divergent thinker, Liu often asked questions which found no quick answers from his teachers, or gave correct but not standard answers to their questions, said one of his high-school math teachers, Gong Fujing.