Tuesday, January 21, 2003

The Why Me? File

Last night I (and forty other complexity theorists) received by email an anonymous paper entitled "NP = coNP". After a quick scan it was clear there was not much in the paper, so it will just become another entry in my Why Me? file.

Each year for the past dozen years, I receive various papers by people I've never heard of claiming great results in computer science or mathematics. I started the Why Me? file to collect these various manuscripts. In those early ancient days I received papers by postal mail, now I always get them electronically. All of the papers have been incorrect ranging from subtle errors to papers that just don't understand the question. What motivates these people? A chance for glory I suppose.

Most of the papers I get are variants on the P versus NP question, though a surprising number claim to have counterexamples to Cantor's Theorem that there are more reals than integers. As one author put it, "Sure, Cantor's Theorem is true if you consider only integers with a finite number of digits." My favorite is one of the earliest letters I got from a person who believes he deserves the first Noble (sic) prize in mathematics. "We have conclusively shown that Einstein's c2 in E=mc2 is different than Pythagoras' c2 in a2+b2=c2." And all this time I thought E=m(a2+b2).

I never spend more than a few seconds on any of these papers and I certainly never respond which is only asking for trouble. If there is any chance of it being correct, I can wait until someone else finds the bug.

Here is my suggestion to any of you who think you have the theorem of the century: Send it to a grad student with an opening line like "Because you are an expert in complexity...". They'll happily read your paper and tell you the errors of your ways. If by some fluke the result is correct the student will spread it around to the community and you'll get your fifteen minutes of fame.

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