(Cross-posted at M-Phi)
A few days ago Eric had a post about an insightful text that has been making the rounds on the internet, which narrates the story of a mathematical ‘proof’ that is for now sitting somewhere in a limbo between the world of proofs and the world of non-proofs. The ‘proof’ in question purports to establish the famous ABC conjecture, one of the (thus far) main open questions in number theory. (Luckily, a while back Dennis posted an extremely helpful and precise exposition of the ABC conjecture, so I need not rehearse the details here.) It has been proposed by the Japanese mathematician Shinichi Mochizuki, who is widely regarded as an extremely talented mathematician. This is important, as crackpot ‘proofs’ are proposed on a daily basis, but in many cases nobody bothers to check them; a modicum of credibility is required to get your peers to spend time checking your purported proof. (Whether this is fair or not is beside the point; it is a sociological fact about the practice of mathematics.) Now, Mochizuki most certainly does not lack credibility, but his ‘proof’ has been made public quite a few months ago, and yet so far there is no verdict as to whether it is indeed a proof of the ABC conjecture or not. How could this be?
As it turns out, Mochizuki has been working pretty much on his own for the last 10 years, developing new concepts and techniques by mixing-and-matching elements from different areas of mathematics. The result is that he created his own private mathematical world, so to speak, which no one else seems able (or willing) to venture into for now. So effectively, as it stands his ‘proof’ is not communicable, and thus cannot be surveyed by his peers.