An extract from Mochizuki's proposed proof of the abc conjecture. Credit: AP/Press Association Images

Nearly four years after Shinichi Mochizuki unveiled an imposing set of papers that could revolutionize the theory of numbers, other mathematicians have yet to understand his work or agree on its validity — although they have made modest progress.

Some four dozen mathematicians converged last week for a rare opportunity to hear Mochizuki present his own work at a conference on his home turf, Kyoto University's Research Institute for Mathematical Sciences (RIMS).

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Mochizuki is “less isolated than he was before the process got started”, says Kiran Kedlaya, a number theorist at the University of California, San Diego. Although at first Mochizuki's papers, which stretch over more than 500 pages1,2,3,4, seemed like an impenetrable jungle of formulae, experts have slowly discerned a strategy in the proof that the papers describe, and have been able to zero in on particular passages that seem crucial, he says.

And Jeffrey Lagarias, a number theorist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, says that he got far enough to see that Mochizuki’s work is worth the effort. "It has some revolutionary new ideas,” he says.

Still, Kedlaya says that the more he delves into the proof, the longer he thinks it will take to reach a consensus on whether it is correct. He used to think that the issue would be resolved perhaps by 2017. “Now I'm thinking at least three years from now.”

Others are even less optimistic. “The constructions are generally clear, and many of the arguments could be followed to some extent, but the overarching strategy remains totally elusive for me,” says mathematician Vesselin Dimitrov of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. “Add to this the heavy, unprecedentedly indigestible notation: these papers are unlike anything that has ever appeared in the mathematical literature.”

The abc proof

Mochizuki’s theorem aims to prove the important abc conjecture, which dates back to 1985 and relates to prime numbers — whole numbers that cannot be evenly divided by any smaller number except by 1. The conjecture comes in a number of different forms, but explains how the primes that divide two numbers, a and b, are related to those that divide their sum, c.

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If Mochizuki’s proof is correct, it would have repercussions across the entire field, says Dimitrov. “When you work in number theory, you cannot ignore the abc conjecture,” he says. “This is why all number theorists eagerly wanted to know about Mochizuki's approach.” For example, Dimitrov showed in January5 how, assuming the correctness of Mochizuki’s proof, one might be able to derive many other important results, including a completely independent proof of the celebrated Fermat’s last theorem.

But the purported proof, which Mochizuki first posted on his webpage in August 2012, builds on more than a decade of previous work in which Mochizuki worked in virtual isolation and developed a novel and extremely abstract branch of mathematics.

Mochizuki in the room

The Kyoto workshop followed on the heels of one held last December in Oxford, UK. Mochizuki did not attend that first meeting, although he answered the audience’s questions over a Skype video link. This time, having him in the room — and hearing him present some of the materials himself — was helpful, says Taylor Dupuy, a mathematician at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who participated in both workshops.

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There are now around ten mathematicians who are putting substantial effort into digesting the material — up from just three before the Oxford workshop, says Ivan Fesenko, a mathematician at the University of Nottingham, UK, who co-organized both workshops. The group includes younger researchers, such as Dupuy.

In keeping with his reputation for being a very private person, Mochizuki — who is said to never eat meals in the presence of colleagues — did not take part in the customary mingling and social activities at the Kyoto meeting, according to several sources. And although he was unfailingly forthcoming in answering questions, it was unclear what he thought of the proceedings. “Mochizuki does not give a lot away,” Kedlaya says. “He’s an excellent poker player.”

Fellow mathematicians have criticized Mochizuki for his refusal to travel. After he posted his papers, he turned down multiple offers to spend time abroad and lecture on his ideas. Although he spent much of his youth in the United States, he is now said to rarely leave the Kyoto area. (Mochizuki does not respond to requests for interviews, and the workshop’s website contained the notice: “Activities aimed at interviewing or media coverage of any sort within the facilities of RIMS, Kyoto University, will not be accepted.”)

“He is very level-headed,” says another workshop participant, who did not want to be named. “The only thing that frustrates him is people making rash judgemental comments without understanding any details.”

Still, Dupuy says, “I think he does take a lot of the criticism about him really personally. I’m sure he’s sick of this whole thing, too.”

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