# 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

He's sixteen ?

#56 - Mon May 28, 2012 6:31 PM EDT

I think before any judgement can be placed by what can or can't be seen, the boy needs to be able to have the chance to prove himself....and without all the judgement. I say give him that chance and then come to conclusions based off of the results. I for one hope it's true...there is nothing wrong with such a true finding. But I know that I'm not one to judge.

• 1 vote
#57 - Mon May 28, 2012 6:32 PM EDT

he is wrong, the answer is 3

• 1 vote
#58 - Mon May 28, 2012 6:33 PM EDT

Wrong, td49. The answer is 42!

• 1 vote
#58.1 - Mon May 28, 2012 6:53 PM EDT

the answer is blowing in the wind

#58.2 - Mon May 28, 2012 7:09 PM EDT

I was gonna just say "magic!"

#59 - Mon May 28, 2012 6:36 PM EDT

This kid needs to come to us before india sells him to pakistan and uses him in research to blow us up.

#60 - Mon May 28, 2012 6:39 PM EDT

Unless the teen hired an agent to hype this up or something, don't blame him for all the hype. Applaud him for taking on something complicated and trying to find a solution. Unless it's not his work of course.

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

I agree with James Binney's statement, "To be impressed, we need to know details."

#62 - Mon May 28, 2012 6:58 PM EDT

This story gives me hope. Young people are motivated, intelligent, and hard working. There is a bright future for the Earth and it's inhabitants. Regardless of whether or not this young man is from outside of my home country, the information is there for the whole world to share.

The world is full of people like this young man. Unfortunately many of the people with his potential are too busy surviving, instead of realizing their true capabilities.

Where can I contribute so that I can encourage more of these 'survivors' to become 'enlighteners'? Donating to the Red Cross? Volunteer with Big Brothers/Big Sisters?

Try not to be too jealous of this kid, even though you may be well past his age. Because in spite of your cleverness, and the validity of your statements - you still sound jealous. Instead, get out there and help other young people achieve their potential. That is what it's all about, not trying to bring others down to your level, but instead elevating everyone - including yourself.

• 1 vote
#64 - Mon May 28, 2012 7:01 PM EDT

Well, despite it's very good to have young people interested about science, math, physics... I think the drag due to air density is already very well known and how to calculate it (or estimate it if you prefer the term), just take a look at history, heavy cruisers from world wars demonstrated their knowledge on that drag with deadly precission, is there a doubt? HMS Hood, Yamato, USS Iowa, etc etc...

#65 - Mon May 28, 2012 7:02 PM EDT

Not to demean the kid, but Newtons so called 'laws' are highly subjective and are mathematical approximations anyway so who cares? For example objects in space exhibit a certain elasticity of "gravitational" pull which is completely ignored so none of the equations reflect reality anyway.

#66 - Mon May 28, 2012 7:17 PM EDT

Wrong. Newtonian physics is used to calculate and to know precisely the position of satellites, and virtually every celestial body in motion. Without Newton, we would be living no different than people did 300 years ago, 1000 years ago, or 2000 years ago. Newton's equations do reflect reality. Principia Mathematica was Newton's first major integration of physical sciences. Newton's revelations are cosmological in scope. Our technological abilities are derivatives of that knowledge.

#66.1 - Mon May 28, 2012 9:13 PM EDT

Parenting had nothing to do with this kid, he just comes from one heck of a village cause that's what it takes

#67 - Mon May 28, 2012 7:28 PM EDT

They lost me at "particle". This is way above my paygrade.

#68 - Mon May 28, 2012 7:37 PM EDT

ya, what is that language on the card he's holding, german or hindi?

#68.1 - Mon May 28, 2012 7:40 PM EDT

• 1 vote
#68.2 - Mon May 28, 2012 8:40 PM EDT

What I found most interesting, isn't the fact that this kid possibly figured something out, but rather the response from the so-called intelligensia. Instead of saying something to the effect of, "...wow this kid could be onto something unique here", the response from the Nerd Elite has been one of trying to discount the poor kid.

#69 - Mon May 28, 2012 7:41 PM EDT

I believe that the Nerd Elite (I am one), feel that before jumping up and down with amazement, the work should be subjected to peer review (typical in any major field of study - medicine, mathematics, physics.....). There are ways to approximate the effect, but those approximations are not folded directly into the Newtonian equations. Still, I am amazed and intrigued, and a fascinating bit of work on this young mans part.

• 1 vote
#69.1 - Mon May 28, 2012 8:07 PM EDT

Peer review, or review from another source, is overrated. Just look at the validity of elections around the world - where is the outcry for peer review on voting?

#69.2 - Mon May 28, 2012 8:41 PM EDT

He looks like 45. Wtf?

#70 - Mon May 28, 2012 7:45 PM EDT

He borrowed his uncle's suit and tie, and glasses, and moustache

#70.1 - Mon May 28, 2012 7:53 PM EDT

Indians?

I didn't even see any arrows...

#70.2 - Mon May 28, 2012 8:42 PM EDT

Pretty amazing, that a 16 YO figured out a solution to a problem that may or may not have been in question. The issue of including the density of the air or the resistance of the air into the equation re: the trajectory of a ball has been routinely figured with computers - think of golf balls, so coming up with an equation that actually includes the air resistance is amazing. Re: the post about teachers or parents being at fault - it us the tax payers who are to blame, the very parents who send our children to school and pay for their education with our taxes. We place no requirement on the schools or the teachers to educate our children, we allow the governement and school boards to decide and because we who pay taxes do not vote intelligently, we whine about the results - test results are altered (cheating) - (because it usually results ina bonus to the school or school district), continued lack of real advancement and a country full ill prepared young people with a serious lacking in math and science.

#71 - Mon May 28, 2012 8:00 PM EDT

Interesting... I missed your point about the parents working to assist their student/s after school hours towards additional learning opportunities & class learning reinforcement & quizzing.

Guess I missed that part because you glossed over it - or conveniently ignored writing it.

• 1 vote
#71.1 - Mon May 28, 2012 8:45 PM EDT

The reason he won second prize, is because one of the brilliant minded students from America won first prize.

You all know that I'm just kidding right? Our youth are dumb as hell, and we don't take this tragedy to be a real issue. Our government has concluded that we don't need to educate our children because big business can import intellect at a fraction of the cost. Over the past few decades, there has been no attempt to improve our education system. Knowing this to be true, some of you want a political party in charge who has made clear that they want to take funds from our already failing school system. Stupid people are guaranteed to do really stupid things. Due to the ignorance of our citizens, there is no foreseeable hope for America.

#72 - Mon May 28, 2012 8:02 PM EDT

Now let's not be hasty...when Howard and Raj bring him to the apartment, Sheldon will @!\$%# a brick because he tries to sit in Sheldon's spot. Then, inevitably, Leonard will catch him dry-humping Penny...going: Thump thump thump PENNY...thump thump thump PENNY...thump thump thump PENNY.

No good.

#73 - Mon May 28, 2012 8:05 PM EDT

Give him a visa. He will work for 1/4 of what a spoiled brat MIT grad will. There's some math for you.

• 1 vote
#74 - Mon May 28, 2012 8:06 PM EDT

No - he won't work in America on a visa for a fraction of that spoiled brat MIT grad... I know this for fact, as I recently placed a Chinese born Engineer (with a degree from a U.S. college) in a position working for a U.S. company & assisted in getting his work visa.

The U.S. Government stated the rules regarding what he had to be paid in salary, based on his education & skill-set, and the rate was much higher than an equivalent American-born & educated engineer with same skill-sets would have received... d*mn work visa rules.

#74.1 - Mon May 28, 2012 8:49 PM EDT

Professing themselves to be wise,.. they become like fools.

#75 - Mon May 28, 2012 8:06 PM EDT

Yes, it's the same old story, money vs. religion......enough said.

#76 - Mon May 28, 2012 8:16 PM EDT

the title of this article should be "16 year old fools scientifically illiterate journalists"

#77 - Mon May 28, 2012 8:17 PM EDT

Then there's people like me who couldn't pass college calculus no matter how hard she tried..... :P

#78 - Mon May 28, 2012 8:21 PM EDT

LOL. its not so much the parenting well it is but allot of it goes back on the educational system here. it seems most of the teachers aren't here to teach if they were my kids wouldn't have tons of homework they don't understand. it seems to me I'm teaching my kids not the schools. and this is bad by itself because my education is of the street nature not of high society. at least i know the difference between rt an wrong as will my children. but of course doing the right thing doesn't pay as much as doing the wrong thing .

• 1 vote
#79 - Mon May 28, 2012 8:22 PM EDT

When other peoples are doing science at this level I wonder what in Africa we are doing.

Who is christian, who is Muslim, who is from a different tribe, who is helping us, who colonized...

And some fools are telling me the 21st century is ours.

#80 - Mon May 28, 2012 8:24 PM EDT

The worlds full of sh*ts and sparklers..That boy do shine!

#81 - Mon May 28, 2012 8:34 PM EDT

I sh*t my pants laughing at that quip! Let see if anyone has defined those lovely trig equations in only r and theta instead of the rectangular coordinate equivalents. Would help with arc motion and just plain old sight when what our vision is really a cone like space. The derivation would require an isoceles pie slice cut into two in the middle. There are like five different ways to derive a theta based relation to express sine. Now I am boring you with ancient Greek math that is not taught today because of some supposed German and French geniuses.

#81.1 - Mon May 28, 2012 10:25 PM EDT