Elin Oxenhielm and Hilbert’s 16th Problem: The End?

This is from an open letter by Elin Oxenhielm’s supervisor, Yishao Zhou:

In my opinion the paper is incorrect and includes serious mistakes, which I think any educated mathematician can easily see.

It’s very interesting, but frightening, to see how a student can submit a paper with obvious errors, against her supervisor’s recommendation, to a scientific journal, and get it accepted for publication after what should be a thorough review.

On top of that, it’s even more frightening to see how news media all over the world prints the story, after receiving an odd-looking press release written by herself (although it doesn’t explicitly say so, but it doesn’t say it isn’t from her university either).

See for instance this BBC News article by their science editor, Dr David Whitehouse. Entirely uncritical. The only story I know of which questions her alleged proof was a short interview with her, published in Sweden’s largest daily Dagens Nyheter, which says professor of mathematics Torsten Ekedahl claims her solution is flawed.

Most reports are like the one on BBC News. Some even speak of it as being an accepted proof, and not only in tabloids but, for instance, on Swedish public service radio. And Sweden’s second largest daily does quote a mathematics professor and member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, but only regarding what it would mean if her proof would get accepted.

The fact that her paper was accepted by a scientific journal explains, I think, why it was reported by media in the first place. That must have cleared away any doubts regarding the strange press release, laid out in three columns under the headline “Historic Breakthrough in One of the Greatest Math Puzzles of All Time,” and consisting of a mix of quotes from publications about Hilbert’s problem and interview questions with Oxenhielm herself.

The press release doesn’t clearly indicate its source, and it lacks the standard list of people to contact for more information. It should be obvious that it doesn’t originate from the university, especially when it ends with something like this:

What Will Happen Next?

Elin Oxenhielm explains:

“I intend to bring the mathematical understanding of my proof to the general public by e.g. lecturing and writing a book (cf. the No. 1 bestseller Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Sing). A book may also serve as inspiration for a movie or a TV documentary (cf. the Oscar-winning movie A Beautiful Mind and the BBC documentary about Fermat’s last theorem).”

But once it showed up in the press, it spread quickly. Not to mention among weblogs, where it was mostly linked to and quoted from. But it was criticized by some on Slashdot and unstruct.org. (The blogosphere needs more specialists, to critically deal with stories that uncritically spreads in traditional media.)

I’m interested in receiving reports of news about this in traditional media. Please send me links or quotes.

The above was posted to my personal weblog on December 5, 2003. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.

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