The mathematics world was rocked last month when Yitang Zhang helped demystify one of the field’s longstanding mysteries: the twin primes conjecture. More notable is that Zhang isn’t a tenured professor, nor is he a prodigy. He is a 50-year-old unknown in the field and he solved the problem in near solitude. From a WIRED profile:
Rumors swept through the mathematics community that a great advance had been made by a researcher no one seemed to know — someone whose talents had been so overlooked after he earned his doctorate in 1991 that he had found it difficult to get an academic job, working for several years as an accountant and even in a Subway sandwich shop.
As details of his work have emerged, it has become clear that Zhang achieved his result not via a radically new approach to the problem, but by applying existing methods with great perseverance.