# 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

Some of these comments are scary and sad.........Meanwhile in the U.S., your average 16 year old knows: the latest news on Lindsay Lohan, who won on American Idol last night and Jay Z's latest lyrics.....wooooohoooooo....there's world-beating skills right there, and people wonder why we lead the world in almost nothing anymore. This kid (and his Chinese peers), are the future, and guess what?? The future won't be here anymore......sad.....

#28 - Mon May 28, 2012 3:27 PM EDT

Yes, and the average US student probably has high self-esteem!

And probably diabetes!

Not sure what those count for. But it can't help in the big picture.

• 1 vote
#28.1 - Mon May 28, 2012 4:41 PM EDT

Is this gonna be on the test?

#29 - Mon May 28, 2012 3:31 PM EDT

Stupid isn't cute.

• 1 vote
#29.1 - Mon May 28, 2012 8:05 PM EDT

Neither is a tragic misunderstanding of irony.

• 1 vote
#29.2 - Mon May 28, 2012 9:19 PM EDT

Biiig deal, just throw in a bunch of parathenses and numbers and some wierd characters so what!!!

Its doesnt changed the fact that this person is smart, only on paper he is smart, but when it comes to the real world he would not know how to fix a pipe, or fix a car, or even change a light bulb or cook a meal.

as for knowing these things doesnt show that a person is smart, numbers and knowing trig or quantum physic isnt a life giving attribute. In having a skill like carpentry, chef and mechanic is, and knowing these things you will live a long time in life, but knowing numbers, is not going to help you in the long run. of course you need to know numbers when doing those things but nothing what this fellow shows. just keep the math simple and all will be happy.

But congrats to him, whatever that means and for what.

#30 - Mon May 28, 2012 3:32 PM EDT

I could not disagree more with you on just about everything you said up there.

#30.1 - Mon May 28, 2012 3:48 PM EDT

Wonder if you say this if some one wins an American Idol, or an Oscar or Sports championship? Do you think they all would know how to fix a pipe or fix a car?

This kid doesn't have to know, because he can hire you to do that work.

#30.2 - Mon May 28, 2012 4:34 PM EDT

Well tells ya what, Sparky of the School of Hard knocks:

You stick to your plumbing and other C-track professions, mmkay? Keep things humming along nicely and don't forget to pick up some lite beer on your way home.

Guys like this one here - they go on to do great things; inventions in science and medicine that make it possible for you to park your plumber's butt in front of a laptop, stave off your diabetes, and put down the accomplishments of this gifted young man!

You'll be utterly forgotten. This guy, though, may go on to change things.

It's also rather hilarious of you to assume that this kid has no practical real world skills.

The thing is, and I'll use simple English here so you won't need a dictionary:

He can learn those skills.

You, however, can't learn his skills.

Bazinga.

#30.3 - Mon May 28, 2012 4:37 PM EDT

How would you have any idea of what else he knows and can do. Dumb azz.

• 1 vote
#30.4 - Mon May 28, 2012 7:43 PM EDT

O.K. Fine, so where's my transporter?

#31 - Mon May 28, 2012 3:40 PM EDT

I was not aware that a flash of genius had an age requirement before it could occur.

• 1 vote
#32 - Mon May 28, 2012 3:41 PM EDT

If the young man has succeeded or even come very close, I say give him a research grant and a full ride scholarship to whatever university he wants to attend (which, honestly, he'll probably get).

Tragic facial hair situation though. Just kidding, dude. YAY SCIENCE!

#33 - Mon May 28, 2012 3:45 PM EDT

He's not 16. He looks closer to 27. He is the oldest looking 16 yr/old I ever seen. Hey buddy, smoke pot and join a rock-n-roll band. Like a normal 16 yr/old.

• 1 vote
#34 - Mon May 28, 2012 3:55 PM EDT

Is it so hard to give a kid a "Well done!" Come on folks, would you rather he spend his time doing this or smoking weed with his friends?

I say Way To Go Shouryya!! Keep up the good work!

#35 - Mon May 28, 2012 3:56 PM EDT

I think somebody has already been smoking to much weed...

• 1 vote
#36 - Mon May 28, 2012 3:58 PM EDT

I think it's crack or meth.

#36.1 - Mon May 28, 2012 8:09 PM EDT

Trying to calculate what the air/wind has on an object as it falls is not possible. There are too many variables all of which can and do accrue randomly. It is amazing how ever that a person of 16 might be able to understand the problem.

#37 - Mon May 28, 2012 4:06 PM EDT

I hope this young man is the genius he seems to be. The world needs more young men and women just like him. The sad, sad thing is, he's NOT an American. What in the name of all that's good has happened to American education? The brain trust we have flees to places like CERN and other locales of that nature. (No, I haven't forgotten about Fermi Lab.) It truly grieves me that we are so damn short-sided about education in general and math in particular. The Large Hadron collider was 'supposed' to be built on the Oklahoma/Texas border. Where is it? Switzerland. Why? Money. I put this loss square on the Republicans and their lack of vision for America.

#38 - Mon May 28, 2012 4:10 PM EDT

It must be creepy going to school with someone pretending to be 16. What's creepier is being older and pretending to be 16 so you can date younger girls or boys. I truly hope this isn't the case but we all know if it is, it won't be the first time. Even in the United States a girl 20+ was caught in a motel with a 15 (I think) year old girl pretending to be her boy friend. Now that's creepy!

#39 - Mon May 28, 2012 4:12 PM EDT

Not as creepy as a giant centipede

#39.1 - Mon May 28, 2012 4:26 PM EDT

No, that's hot!

#39.2 - Mon May 28, 2012 6:05 PM EDT

That "16 year old" looks 35. Nice try.

#40 - Mon May 28, 2012 4:34 PM EDT

LQQKS to me this kid has got an E-Ticket to a life relgated for only master chess champions.

#41 - Mon May 28, 2012 4:37 PM EDT

This is probably very interesting work with application in a number of fields, but it won't make any easier to hit a well-thrown knuckleball.

#42 - Mon May 28, 2012 5:05 PM EDT

Jeeeeez what a pack of cheap shots! One can never underestimate the generosity, taste or integrity of the American public.

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.

Of course Alan Boyle doesn't do a very good job is stating precisely what the problems are either. {Would it kill ya to kick out a URL, Alan?)

• 1 vote
#43 - Mon May 28, 2012 5:08 PM EDT

Unfortunately lots of hypes these days, lets see the proof.

#44 - Mon May 28, 2012 5:19 PM EDT

All that and the guy only got second place?

#45 - Mon May 28, 2012 5:19 PM EDT

It is a well-known scientific fact that Indians settle for seconds.

• 1 vote
#45.1 - Mon May 28, 2012 5:26 PM EDT

And this changes my life how? Oh yea, now I can get a job and feed myself because I know money falls from trees! I'll bet Obama has something to do with this. I just know it....

#46 - Mon May 28, 2012 6:03 PM EDT

I wonder if the equation takes into account all of the hot air coming from the mouths of Right Wing politicians and talking heads?

#47 - Mon May 28, 2012 6:09 PM EDT

I threw a ball once.... and what do you know it fell just like he said wow now im a genius at math to

#48 - Mon May 28, 2012 6:10 PM EDT

Very impressive. I was trying to find the missing 'c' in arcsinh, but I guess arsinh is becoming more commonplace. This really gives an idea of just how truly brilliant Isaac Newton was.

#49 - Mon May 28, 2012 6:16 PM EDT

Theres no way this kid is 16. Just look at him

#50 - Mon May 28, 2012 6:18 PM EDT

I think the biggest question to ask this young man is; "How old are you really"? He looks older than 16...

#51 - Mon May 28, 2012 6:21 PM EDT

I hit a ball in NC once and it carried right through my neighbor's glass window; pie=if it's apple or cherry, it's delicious!!!!!

I guess curiousity got the best of me because this discussion is obviously way past my realm of understanding!!!!

#52 - Mon May 28, 2012 6:24 PM EDT