What’s The Shortest Proof I’ve Done?

I didn’t figure to have a bookend for last week’s “What’s The Longest Proof I’ve Done? question. I don’t keep track of these things, after all. And the length of a proof must be a fluid concept. If I show something is a direct consequence of a previous theorem, is the proof’s length the two lines of new material? Or is it all the proof of the previous theorem plus two new lines?

I would think the shortest proof I’d done was showing that the logarithm of 1 is zero. This would be starting from the definition of the natural logarithm of a number x as the definite integral of 1/t on the interval from 1 to x. But that requires a bunch of analysis to support the proof. And the Intermediate Value Theorem. Does that stuff count? Why or why not?

But this happened to cross my desk: The Shortest-Known Paper Published in a Serious Math Journal: Two Succinct Sentences, an essay by Dan Colman. It reprints a paper by L J Lander and T R Parkin which appeared in the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society in 1966.

It’s about Euler’s Sums of Powers Conjecture. This is a spinoff of Fermat’s Last Theorem. Leonhard Euler observed that you need at least two whole numbers so that their squares add up to a square. And you need three cubes of whole numbers to add up to the cube of a whole number. Euler speculated you needed four whole numbers so that their fourth powers add up to a fourth power, five whole numbers so that their fifth powers add up to a fifth power, and so on.

And it’s not so. Lander and Parkin found that this conjecture is false. They did it the new old-fashioned way: they set a computer to test cases. And they found four whole numbers whose fifth powers add up to a fifth power. So the quite short paper answers a long-standing question, and would be hard to beat for accessibility.

There is another famous short proof sometimes credited as the most wordless mathematical presentation. Frank Nelson Cole gave it on the 31st of October, 1903. It was about the Mersenne number 267-1, or in human notation, 147,573,952,589,676,412,927. It was already known the number wasn’t prime. (People wondered because numbers of the form 2n-1 often lead us to perfect numbers. And those are interesting.) But nobody knew which factors it was. Cole gave his talk by going up to the board, working out 267-1, and then moving to the other side of the board. There he wrote out 193,707,721 × 761,838,257,287, and showed what that was. Then, per legend, he sat down without ever saying a word, and took in the standing ovation.

I don’t want to cast aspersions on a great story like that. But mathematics is full of great stories that aren’t quite so. And I notice that one of Cole’s doctoral students was Eric Temple Bell. Bell gave us a great many tales of mathematics history that are grand and great stories that just weren’t so. So I want it noted that I don’t know where we get this story from, or how it may have changed in the retellings. But Cole’s proof is correct, at least according to Octave.

So not every proof is too long to fit in the universe. But then I notice that Mathworld’s page regarding the Euler Sum of Powers Conjecture doesn’t cite the 1966 paper. It cites instead Lander and Parkin’s “A Counterexample to Euler’s Sum of Powers Conjecture” from Mathematics of Computation volume 21, number 97, of 1967. There the paper has grown to three pages, although it’s only a couple paragraphs of one page and three lines of citation on the third. It’s not so easy to read either, but it does explain how they set about searching for counterexamples. But it may give you some better idea of how numerical mathematicians find things.


Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

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