Recently I was browsing math Wikipedia, and found that Harald Helfgott announced the complete proof of the weak Goldbach Conjecture in 2013, a proof which has been accepted widely by the math community, but according to Wikipedia hasn’t been accepted by any major journals. My first question:

Has Helfgott’s proof been verified as of now? Why hasn’t it been published in a peer-reviewed journal yet (or has it and I’m just ignorant)?

Secondly, I found that he announced his proof the same day Yitang Zhang announced his result of the 70,000,000-prime bound (a remarkable coincidence indeed). Zhang’s result got a lot of coverage, from Numberphile (who made like 5 videos about it compared to like 1 video about the Goldbach conjecture mentioning Helfgott in a passing comment), to science newspapers/magazines, to Terry Tao, James Maynard, and the polymath project. I mean, his work made it to the Annals of Mathematics in Princeton!

Comparatively, I found very low coverage on Helfgott’s result, and it seems like people rank the importance of Zhang’s result above Helfgott’s in math ranking sites, such as https://www.mathnasium.com/top-10-mathematical-achievements-in-past-5-years, which explicitly gives the top spot to Zhang with “no surprise”. Also as I’ve mentioned before I don’t think he published in a major journal compared to Zhang who published in the Annals. Second question:

Why did Helfgott’s proof produce less of a stir in the math community than Zhang’s work? Was Helfgott’s work not groundbreaking enough?

(Is it perhaps because of the fact that Vinogradov had already proven the weak Goldbach Conjecture for sufficiently large numbers in 1937 and Helfgott “simply” lowered the bound, whereas Zhang’s work shrank the bound from infinity to a finite quantity? Still wouldn’t Helfgott’s work deserve publication in a peer-reviewed journal?)

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2 Answers2


Update: I'm making most of the current version of the book publicly accessible. Comments and other feedback are much appreciated!

Just a few remarks so as to keep everybody informed. (I came across this page by chance while looking for something else.)

As far as I know, nobody has found any serious issues with the proof. (There was a rather annoying but non-threatening error that I found in section 11.2 and fixed myself, and of course some typos and slips here are there; none affect the overall strategy or the final result.)

A manuscript containing the full proof was accepted for publication at Annals of Mathematics Studies back in 2015. I was asked to rewrite matters fairly substantially for expository reasons, though the extent of the revisions was left up to my discretion.

Publishing a lengthy proof (about 240 pages in its shortest complete version, which was considered too terse by some) is never trivial. Publishing it in top journals, where the backlog is often very large, is even more complicated. (Many thanks are due to the editors of a top journal -- which does often publish rather long articles -- for their candid description of complicated decisions in the editorial process.) I was thus delighted when the manuscript was accepted for publication in Annals of Mathematics Studies, which publishes book-length research monographs.

A very detailed referee report was certainly helpful; it was as detailed as one could reasonably ask from a single author. At the same time, I felt that it would be best for everybody if there were a second round of refereeing, with individual referees taking care of separate chapters. So, I asked the publishers for such a second round, and they graciously accepted.

One of the (first-round) referees had suggested that I treat the manuscript as a draft to be fairly thoroughly restructured, and that I add several introductory chapters. While I found the request a little overwhelming at first, and while the editors did not demand as much of me, I became convinced that the referee was right, and set about the task.

What follows is a long, still not quite finished story of a process that took longer than expected, in part due to my commitments to other projects, in part perhaps due to a certain perfectionism on my part, in part due to publishing mishaps that you definitely do not want to hear about, and above all because it became clear to me, not only that the proof had had fairly few thorough readers, but that it would be worthwhile for it to have a substantially wider readership.

To expand on what has been said by other people who replied to or commented on the original poster's question: knowing that ternary Goldbach holds for all even integers $n\geq 4$ is not likely to have very many applications, though it does have some. In that sense it may be seen as the end of a road. The further use of the proof will reside mainly in the techniques that had to be applied, developed and sharpened for its sake. For that matter, the same is arguably true of Vinogradov's work -- it arguably brought the circle method to its full maturity, after the foundational work of Hardy, Littlewood and Ramanujan, besides showing the power that combinatorial identities can have in work on the primes.

From that perspective, it makes sense for the proof to be published as a book that, say, a graduate student, or a specialist in a neighboring field, can read with profit. Of course it is still fair and necessary to assume that the reader has taken the equivalent of a first graduate course in analytic number theory.

In the current version, the first hundred pages are taken by an introduction and by chapters on what can be called the basics of analytic number theory from an explicit and computational viewpoint. Then come 40 pages on further groundwork on the estimation of common sums in analytic number theory - sums over primes, sums of $\mu(n)$, sums of $\mu^2(n)/\phi(n)$, etc. (I should single out the contributions of O. Ramaré to the explicit understanding of sums of $\mu(n)/n$ and $\mu^2(n)/\phi(n)$ as invaluable.) Then there are close to 120 pages on improvements or generalizations on various versions of the large sieve, their connection to the circle method, and also on an upper-bound quadratic sieve. (This last subject got a little too interesting at some point; I am glad my treatment is done!) Then comes an explicit treatment of exponential sums, in some sense the core of the proof. (The smoothing function used here has been changed from that in the original version.)

Then comes the truly complex-analytic part. I am editing that part a little so that people who are not interested mainly in ternary Goldbach will be able to take what they need on parabolic cylinder functions, the saddle-point method or explicit formulas (explicit explicit formulas?). Then comes the part where different smoothing functions have to be chosen - again, I am currently editing so that others can readily pick up ideas that probably have wider applicability. The calculations that are needed for the ternary Goldbach problem and no other purpose take fewer than 20 pages at the end.

I believe I can say the heavy part is mostly over; I am currently doing some editing on the second half (or rather the last two fifths) of the book while waiting to hear from several of the second-round referees I requested myself. Of course I am also working on other things as well.

All being said, I would not necessarily recommend any non-masochist friend to write a book-length monograph in the future -- though some other people seem to manage -- not just because the time things take seems to be quadratic on the length of the text, which itself increases monotonically, but also because it is frustrating that it is hard to post periodic updates (certainly harder than for independent papers), in that always some part of the whole is undergoing construction. At the same time, I hope to be happy with the end result.

H A Helfgott
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    Thank you for replying. It amazes me that the very subject of my question manages to see this question--it's a small world after all! I look forward to seeing your publication :) – D.R. Apr 10 '19 at 02:16

Harald's CV has the entry,

Expository monographs – pure mathematics

M2. The ternary Goldbach problem, to appear in Ann. of Math. Studies.

But, it looks like he has not updated this CV since 2015. Also, I don't see it at the Annals of Math Studies site.

EDIT: There was a panel discussion of machine-assisted proofs at the ICM in Rio, August 2018. Harald was on the panel, and on page 9 he writes, concerning his proof of ternary Goldbach, "the version to be published is in preparation."

As for the question of "stir", Zhang was happy to find some $n$ such that there are infinitely many prime gaps no bigger than $n$; he found it was possible to take $n=70,000,000$, and didn't try to make the sharpest estimates. This left the field wide open for others to try to bring that value of $n$ down, and they did. For quite a while it seemed there were improvements reported every day, even every hour, and the work took place in public, on the polymath blog. And of course, there's still work to do. The current value of $n$, if I'm not mistaken, is $246$, where it's conjectured that $n=2$ will do. So, there has been a lot to keep people interested.

Harald's work, on the other hand, completely solved ternary Goldbach. There was nothing left to do (except, of course, to solve Goldbach proper, but [and I hesitate to write the following, since I'm out of my depth here, and could be way wrong] Harald's work doesn't seem to show the way to do that). So far as I know (and, again, I could be badly misinformed), nothing has come out of ternary Goldbach at all. That's not Harald's fault, and his work was a stunning achievement, but maybe it goes some way toward answering the question about the "stir".

Gerry Myerson
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    Any ideas as to why it wasn’t as big a deal as Zhang’s work? – D.R. Mar 27 '19 at 23:38
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    You might be on the right track in the last paragraph of the question. – Gerry Myerson Mar 28 '19 at 05:14
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    Another reason why Helfgott's work wasn't as audibly received as Zhang's is because it's, in a way, not *that* big of an achievement. Apologies if I am dismissing importance of his result, but it was long known that ternary Goldbach is true for large enough numbers (even with explicit bounds), and what he did is push this bound into the range which has been computationally verified. On the other hand, Zhang proved a result unlike any before. – Wojowu Apr 02 '19 at 20:52
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    There are some applications of ternary Goldbach, sometimes in surprising fields (see e.g. http://www.math.ucla.edu/~pak/papers/recfin.pdf). However, it is my guess that the main utility of the proof will lie, in the long run, in the techniques I had to develop, or more often just advanced and refined. – H A Helfgott Apr 09 '19 at 11:20
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    For obvious reasons, I don't want to chip into the comparison with Zhang's work at all - let me just add that number theorists were well aware of, indeed astounded by, a previous breakthrough, by Goldston, Pintz and Yildirim, in 2005. Somehow that does not seem to have made it through to mass media as much, perhaps because a bound by $O(\sqrt{\log x})$ is harder to explain than a constant bound. Of course, back in 2005, several strong people tried to improve on their result to get a constant bound, and failed. Zhang later succeeded in finding a way others had not seen. – H A Helfgott Apr 09 '19 at 11:24