x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Mathematical envy

A 16-year-old is making waves in the world of physics, which we suspect demonstrates a changeless reality of nature: professional jealously.

You'd expect news that a teenager may have improved on the work of Sir Isaac Newton to be received with acclaim and excitement. When it comes to physicists, proof should trump emotion every time. Except, perhaps, if that emotion happens to be envy.

Shouryya Ray, a 16-year-old Indian-born German student from Dresden, has gained worldwide fame with his attempts to solve two long-standing problems - how to account for air resistance in calculating the trajectory of a ball travelling at an angle, and the exact behaviour of a ball thrown against a wall. His efforts won him second place in the maths and informatics category for Germany's Jugend Forscht student science competition recently (first place went to research on the speed of light).

But physicists around the world are not celebrating just yet. One called Ray's work unimpressive. Another said it was "rather suspicious".

It is not surprising that the scientific community errs on the side of caution on such matters. Still, one might assume that the mere attempt at improving work as prominent as Newton's would receive a semblance of praise.

Unfortunately, it seems no formula has yet been devised that explains the behaviour of a physicist who's been beaten to a discovery by a colleague. Especially if that colleague is the new kid on the block.