Chen Jingrun: Biography & Facts

Instructor: Betsy Chesnutt

Betsy teaches college physics, biology, and engineering and has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering

Chen Jingrun (1933-1996) was a Chinese mathematician who dedicated his life to proving the still unproven Goldbach's conjecture. In this lesson, learn about the many challenges he overcame and his contributions to mathematics.

Proving Goldbach's Conjecture

On a spring day in Beijing, China, in 1984, one of the world's greatest mathematicians was biking across town. He was en route from his house to his favorite bookstore. Life had always been extremely difficult for this 51 year-old mathematician, whose name was Chen Jingrun. However, no matter how bad things had gotten, he had continued to work on mathematics, and now, his life finally seemed to be on the right track.

Chen Jingrun (1933-1996), one of the greatest Chinese mathematicians of all time
A portrait of the Chinese mathematician, Chen Jingrun

He was on the verge of proving one of the greatest unproven ideas in the history of mathematics. In 1742, a mathematician named Christian Goldbach said that every number greater than two can be written as the sum of two prime numbers. Although it is generally accepted that Goldbach's Conjecture is true, no one, including Goldbach himself, has ever been able to prove it. Over two hundred years later, Chen Jingrun thought he had finally done it.

However, something was about to happen on this spring day that would change his life forever. As he biked to the bookstore, he suddenly collided with another cyclist. Both riders were thrown from their bikes, and Jingrun hit his head on the hard concrete.

He was taken to the hospital where it was determined that he had a concussion. Doctors also found signs of Parkinson's disease, which was likely exacerbated by his head injury. He recovered partially, but things weren't the same. Then, a few months later, he fell while getting off of a crowded bus, and once again hit his head. This time, the outcome would be even more devastating.

This second concussion, added to all the other head trauma he had received during the course of his life, left him profoundly handicapped. Over time, he managed to recover some abilities, but he was never able to finish his work on Goldbach's Conjecture. Even today, no one has come has close as Chen Jingrun to solving this longstanding mathematical mystery.

Early Life and Education

Who exactly was this mathematician who came closer than anyone else in history to solving the famous Goldbach's conjecture? Chen Jingrun was born in 1933 in the Fujian province of China. His father tried very hard to support a family of twelve children as a post office clerk, but they were very poor and often struggled just to survive.

In 1937, war between Japan and China broke out, and the Fujian province turned into a battleground, with many civilians killed and terrorized over the next eight years. Jingrun's family did not escape the violence, and he often suffered from flashbacks and panic attacks as a result of all the atrocities he witnessed as a child.

In 1945, the war finally ended and Jingrun was able to start attending a real school for the first time in his life. It was while he was in high school that he first learned of Goldbach's conjecture. His high school mathematics teacher told the class about it and added that he hoped one of his students would one day be the person who finally proved it. While most of the class laughed, Jingrun took him seriously and decided he did want to be the person who proved the famously unproven Goldbach's conjecture.

In 1949, he enrolled in Xiamen University as a student in the mathematical physics department. Although he still lived in extreme poverty, in later years, he would often speak of his time as a university student as a golden period in his life, when he was able to devote all his attention to mathematics.

Life after Graduation

After graduating in 1963, Jingrun spent one year as a high school mathematics teacher, but then returned to the university to work in the library. He became more and more interested in number theory, and published his first paper in 1956. Based on his obvious talent, he was soon given a job as an assistant in the Institute of Mathematics. Over the next few years, the work he published was truly extraordinary.

He published work on the famous circle problem, divisor problem, sphere problem, and Waring's problem, but Goldbach's conjecture never left his thoughts. In 1962, he began working on his masterpiece, an extensive proof of Goldbach's conjecture. He worked on it for more than three years, but just before it was to be published, the Chinese Cultural Revolution began.

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