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City boy in Germany solves ‘Newton puzzle’

Isaac Newton and Shouryya Ray

May 26: A 16-year-old schoolboy who had moved from Calcutta to Germany four years ago has earned himself the title of “Young Scientist” after solving a problem said to have been posed by Isaac Newton over 300 years ago, German media has reported.

Shouryya Ray, a resident of Dresden, has solved a differential equation that addresses a fundamental problem in particle dynamics and may be used to predict the flight path of a ball bouncing off a wall, the German paper Die Welt said.

The report said Shouryya had developed an analytical solution for a particle dynamics problem that had until now been addressed through numerical solutions using computers that yielded results based on approximations.

“The report suggests that this is a mathematical achievement — an analytical solution is a complete solution in contrast to an approximation,” said Velayudhan A. Raghunathan, a physicist at the Raman Research Institute, Bangalore, who is not familiar with Shouryya’s work.

Some physicists are still unclear about Ray’s achievement.

“The flight of a ball is classical Newtonian dynamics —all we need (to describe the motion) is the angle at which the ball is projected and the coefficient of elasticity which describes the interaction of the ball with the wall,” said K. Subbaramaiah, an executive member of the Indian Association of Physics Teachers.

Shouryya’s feat, the paper said, has helped him win a competition in German’s Saxony province where senior schoolchildren presented myriad projects — from the effects of breakfast on the ability to concentrate, to the cloning of a gene, to a solar car.

Shouryya has just taken the Abitur, the equivalent of the Class 12 exam, at the Martin Andersen Nexo High School in Dresden. He attributes his interest in science to his father, Subhashis Ray, an engineer who works as a research assistant at the Technical University of Freiburg, saying he instilled in him a “hunger for mathematics” by teaching him calculus at the age of six.

Subhashis said he was no longer able to keep up with his son’s mathematical prowess. “He never discussed his project with me before it was finished and the mathematics he used are far beyond my reach,” The Times, London, quoted him as saying.

Shouryya encountered the problem during a visit to the Technical University in Dresden with fellow students, when he was provided the raw data to evaluate a numerical simulation that can be used to describe the flight path of a ball thrown at a wall.

When he realised that the current approximation method could not yield an exact result, Shouryya decided to take the problem on.

“I asked myself, ‘Why can’t it work?’” Shouryya was quoted by Die Welt as saying.

Shouryya, the paper said, doesn’t think he’s a genius. He was weak in graph theory and had trouble even with problems for beginners. It said he’s “even worse” in the social sciences, and quoted him as saying: “In football, I would be bad even in India.”

But he worked for several months on the differential equation and came up with the solution after “many blind alleys”, the paper said. It added that Shouryya was still unclear whether to major in physics or in mathematics.