16-year-old's equations set off buzz over 325-year-old physics puzzler

Jugend Forscht

Sixteen-year-old Shouryya Ray, a student from Dresden who was born in Calcutta, submitted a paper proposing analytical solutions to two problems in particle dynamics.

A research paper that claims to fill in a gap in Isaac Newton's formulas for the physics of falling objects has drawn worldwide attention to a 16-year-old student in Germany, but physicists are reserving judgment until they've seen the proof.

The focus of the buzz is Shouryya Ray, an Indian-born student who won second prize this month in the math and informatics category for Germany's Jugend Forscht student science competition. Ray tackled a couple of longstanding puzzlers for physics students: How do you account for air resistance in calculating the trajectory of ball thrown out at an angle? And precisely how does a ball thrown against the wall rebound?

The first question relates to Newton's law of universal gravitation: In his Principia Mathematica, published in 1687, Newton laid out how a gravitational field would affect a thrown object — but he didn't account for the effect of air resistance. Through the centuries, physicists have used numerical approximations to take drag into account, and when computers come into play, those approximations can be incredibly precise. But Ray said he wanted to come up with a set of formulas that could calculate the effect directly, even though his instructors said that had never been done.

"I asked myself: Why can't it work?" he told the German newspaper Die Welt.

That's what Ray tried to do in his prize-winning paper, titled "Analytical Solution of Two Fundamental Unsolved Problems of Particle Dynamics" ("Analytische Lösung von zwei ungelösten fundamentalen Partikeldynamikproblemen"). In addition to the falling-ball problem, Ray took on a puzzler of more recent vintage, having to do with the description of a particle's collision with a wall, as described by 19th-century theory. But it was the "kid-trumps-Newton" angle that really stirred up a buzz.

Die Welt's report came early in the game: The Daily Mail and The Sunday Times of London picked up the story, adding to the sensation. The idea that a teenager could figure out something that Newton didn't is irresistible — particularly when the teen is an immigrant from Calcutta who says he's no genius. But the story just sparked more questions among inquiring minds in such online hangouts as Physics ForumSlashdot and Reddit: What exactly did Ray do? And were these problems really such mysteries to solve?

That's a challenge, because Ray's paper was a school project submitted for a contest, and thus not subject to the publication process and peer review that professional work typically goes through. For that reason, the experts are reluctant to weigh in.

"This story seems rather suspicious," Richard Fitzpatrick, a physicist at the University of Texas in Austin, told me in an email. "None of the news reports give any details of the calculation. None of the people who hailed Shouryya Ray as a genius are scientists, and none of them give the impression that they have seen the calculation in question. It is impossible to gauge the scientific merit of the calculation until it is made public."

Syracuse University physicist Simon Catterall said in an email that calculating the trajectories of falling objects hadn't been seen as a particularly grand puzzle of physics. "The background given in the article seems genuine enough, so it may indeed be true, but I haven't heard anything about a new solution to a Newtonian problem on the grapevine," he told me.

Based on what's come out about the work so far, the consensus seems to be that Ray has done amazing work for his age — and if he had to choose between his passion for science and his passion for soccer, he'd be well-advised to pick math and physics. His paper putting forth an "analytical solution to two fundamental unsolved problems" may not be the breakthrough that some of the reports have made it out to be, but that doesn't take anything away from the teenager's achievement.

"What Ray has worked out, almost certainly independently, would definitely put him in the 99th percentile amongst his peers and maybe even more," one Redditor observed.

By the way, the first-place winner in the math and informatics category, Julius Kunze, wrote a paper on relativistic ray tracing. But that's a different story...

Update for 5 p.m. ET: Other experts on Newtonian physics have replied to my follow-up queries via email:

Oxford University physicist James Binney: "Doesn't sound too interesting to me. The resistance of air to the ball won't be susceptible to simple analytic formulae — if the ball is of ordinary size, [greater than a centimeter] radius — the flow around it will be in the high Reynolds-number regime and involve a thin boundary layer. Such flows were extensively studied from the last part of the 19th century, so it's true that they lie beyond Newton's knowledge. A good approximation will be to take the drag force as pi r^2 rho v^2, where r is the radius of the ball, v its speed and rho the density of air. I'm unaware of a puzzle regarding bouncing balls. In detail the bounce will depend on the physical properties of the ball — as any squash player knows. Usually one adopts a coefficient of restitution. To be impressed we need to know details."

University of Bristol physicist Michael Berry: "Without seeing the details of what Ray has claimed, it's impossible to comment intelligently. It depends crucially on how he has modeled the air resistance. But a falling body with air resistance (however modeled) is hardly a 'fundamental unsolved problem,' as he seems to think. There's a powerful aroma of hype."

Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding Cosmic Log's Google+ page to your circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.

Discuss this post

the real ﻿anwser?

Ok air was not a factor in?ing of a gravitational pushing or pulling it about the BIG(?)BIG, so you might as well give me what your giveing him, but i have no schooling , so this just might what i need proveit, air, is his, mine is water mixed water air mud, gases and if a part of the sun fell thru earth air would it fall at the same speed when it hits our gravitational air like thers no air just space then airspace would it fall faster or slower, and then when hits the wall of are ball wall made of space air water dirt stone meddal manntal when it reacher the center the core is the insideout of a cooling sun mass just shows you there where we are that the inside of the sun is made up of what is on the outside as on the inside space and stars suns blackholes

#222 - Tue May 29, 2012 11:37 PM EDT

It's so easy to fail. Design the right system and everyone fails together. collectively as a whole. Earth has failed.

#223 - Tue May 29, 2012 11:42 PM EDT

I say sour grapes on most of the scientists that think they are smarter than a 16 year old. They don't like being showed up. specially when it is a kid.

• 1 vote
#224 - Wed May 30, 2012 12:02 AM EDT

I'm sorry...nodded off for a minute there. WHOA! What have we here.....Seems like I've seen this Newtonian formula somewhere before, but can't remember just where. I know it was somewhere in the late 1980"s or early 1990's. But I know somebody else had come up with this same formula long before this guy did. Can't put my finger on it, but this guy is copying.

#225 - Wed May 30, 2012 12:35 AM EDT

Here's my mathematical puzzle for chocolate lovers, and I'm going to guess your age:

1) Take the number of days per week you eat chocolate - it can be anything between 0 and 7.

2) Multiply it by 2

4) Multiply by 50

6) Subtract the year of your birth

Now I'm going to guess your age:

You have a 3-digit number (if you chose 0 as the number of days per week you eat chocolate, consider the 1st digit of your 3-digit number to be 0, like 055). The first digit of your 3-digit number is the number of days you eat chocolate every week. The next 2 digits are your age. Do I get a chocolate bar?

#226 - Wed May 30, 2012 1:46 AM EDT

Meanwhile the pseudo doctors of physics are "thinking" about their egos...

#227 - Wed May 30, 2012 2:57 AM EDT

Meanwhile the pseudo doctors of physics are "thinking" about their egos... Do I need to mention the Status Quo, bureaucracies, the system; furthermore blind-obedience, imposition, etc?

#228 - Wed May 30, 2012 3:06 AM EDT

Don't be fooled so easily... everything that comes from India has to be 100% scrutinized. In this case, the assumptions done there are not necessary correct as stated by the scientific authorities here. Additionally, I would like to check the young man qualifications, probably it is not done exclusively by him but copied from someone else since that is a common practice, as solution-no solutions, fake degrees, phantom universities and hollow jobs, in India.

#229 - Wed May 30, 2012 10:06 AM EDT

Over 400 comments and, Jeeeeez, what a pack of cheap shots! One can never underestimate the generosity, taste or integrity of the American public. This kid was born in India, but educated in Germany, presumably rather well since they do so much better than we by most metrics. There's no evidence to justify those irresponsible charges.

I've had science fair contestants show me scratch built solar collectors, group theory applied to bell ringing, novel solutions for solitons, CFD studies of airliner wings, all kinds of stuff. This sort of contribution is in principle right up there with the fresh insight and approach I look for in such enterprises and relatively free of any heavy mentoring by a big name lab.

#229.1 - Wed May 30, 2012 10:15 AM EDT

I believe this problem to be unsolvable because of the variables of air density affected by elevation and temperature. Also, the effect of gravity would slightly vary depending on the location on the planet.

#230 - Wed May 30, 2012 10:34 AM EDT

Agree!!

Your comment has been the most intelligent to date.

temperature, humidity, elevation, velocity, and trajectory ... (the variables goes on and on) ALL the factors must be accounted for.

It's like asking someone to solve the equation x+y=1 with only one correct answer.

#230.1 - Sun Jun 3, 2012 11:27 AM EDT

Indians - are THE real reason why Asian stats are through the roof - only race to be honored by Congress...lol tiger moms are literally 20% behind Indian mothers

#231 - Sat Jun 2, 2012 6:06 PM EDT

#232 - Sat Jun 2, 2012 6:07 PM EDT

So much hate, so many stupid petty people ----- WOW!!!!!

#233 - Sun Jun 3, 2012 8:41 AM EDT

I don't have anything intelligent to say today, as per usual. I just thought I'd post because I like to shoot my mouth off and call attention to myself.

#234 - Sun Jun 3, 2012 9:47 AM EDT

HAHAHA! No Anthony your post was more intelligent then most on here!

#234.1 - Mon Jun 4, 2012 2:17 AM EDT

My pops told me once that as long as he can count money, that's enough for him:)

#235 - Sun Jun 3, 2012 10:52 AM EDT

Every time some 3rd world country dork with 'Savant Syndrome" makes the News, it's like every rag-head with a degree is the savior of humanity...

Bull SHlT .. just hold out a few weeks until the fraud surfaces.

• 1 vote
#236 - Sun Jun 3, 2012 11:23 AM EDT

He must be one of those mathimagicians. I have had a few in my own family. they are a very odd set.

• 1 vote
#237 - Sun Jun 3, 2012 11:53 AM EDT

Whats wrong with the world today especially the US is the smart people are working tirelessly to make the rest of the public esp kids dumber. They're simplifying everything to a rat brain level so you never have to think or know how to do anything so you can rest your brain for important things like 10hrs on facebook

Cell phones are full of apps to do everything for you, calculate tip, give you turn by turn directions (A girl i am dating cant come to my house without tomtom, she's a nurse n she's hooot! so..). your car will tell u when ur oil change is due or turn on the lights or wipers automatically when needed. Come on ENGINEERS!

#238 - Sun Jun 3, 2012 5:23 PM EDT

Well dang, I guess my calculation was off.... Maybe next time......

#239 - Sun Jun 3, 2012 7:59 PM EDT

Sad that all the non-americans of the world are actually applying their BRAINS to at least try to solve complex scientific, religious, social, survival, & political problems - i.e., all the important issues of the human race - while Americans are 93.5% preoccupied with what they laughably call "sports" - I.E., watching things on TV and memorizing statistics and team names.

Disgusting. No wonder the rest of the world thinks we're stupid. by and large, we are.

If you are standing around a typical American office and you dare to have a conversation about something intellectual, you will get 1 of 2 possible reactions: Americans will react in utter confusion, stunned that you will talk about something other than Idol or TV Sports. Anyone not-American will engage you in conversation, demonstrating this aligns in a normal way with their everyday thoughts and feelings and sense of global citizenry.

in the last 20 years we have truly seen the dumbing-down of america. every elementary school I've seen is full of 2 categories of families....."foreign" parents eagerly pushing their kids to every element of education and intellectualism and science they can,....While American parents have their kids in football...soccer...wrestling..and any other form of almost-totally useless human interaction they can.

My prediction - in 40 years, foreign-born americans will be running the show. And it will be white people landscaping and working the counter at circle K.

#240 - Sun Jun 3, 2012 9:03 PM EDT

every generation has their "special ones"

and the stuffy ones shoot them down

So for those looking for stability in a constantly changing world

you can count on what I mentioned in the second line

What about that guy in (east Europe?) a few years back that cracked some old physics riddle

then refused to answer any more[I read he lived with his mother][he looked about 35 with a full beard]

I believe he knew better than to reveal too much

#241 - Sun Jun 3, 2012 9:44 PM EDT

All those booing this kid are a bunch of jealous babies. I would love to see anyone of those people create a possible solution like he did. I know I cant. At least this young man is trying to better our knowledge of math and psychics and not out there drinking and smoking himself stupid. Even though I don't know him, I respect him and congratulate him for trying to better himself.

#242 - Mon Jun 4, 2012 2:08 AM EDT

I am a typical, American, high school student. I wish I could read and write! Fortunately, my food stamps can be sold or traded for sex, so I don't need such skills.

Four more years of liberalism should just about fix the rest of friends that can read and write.

WAKE UP AMERICA

• 1 vote
#243 - Mon Jun 4, 2012 4:54 AM EDT

and another American kid just gained 17.3 lbs last month by not exercising, sitting on his rump, playing video games, eating chips and drinking a Super Big Gulp of Diet Coke! Kids need to get their head out of their behind and go outside and PLAY....there is absolutley NOTHING wrong with going to the park, playing on the swings, throwing a frisbee or ball, swimming (in approved areas with qualified lifeguards), or walking around a track/trail with a few good friends! Leave the games and technology at home or stowed in a backpack while enjoying the activities. No matter the age, you are NEVER too old to be a kid again....don't take it for granted!

And kudos to this brilliant young man for tackling a topic that nobody else would dare to challenge! May he be successful in every endeavor he chooses; and if he chooses soccer over science we should never judge his decisions!

#244 - Mon Jun 4, 2012 11:59 AM EDT

I know you can find 17/24 on a tape measure right? Mute point.

#245 - Tue Jun 26, 2012 5:08 AM EDT