Having recently written about how contingent faculty, especially those who are no longer young, almost never get to move onto the tenure track, we were thrilled when we recalled—or were reminded of—a dazzling exception. Mathematician Yitang “Tom” Zhang was a lecturer at the University of New Hampshire, Durham—57 years old and completely unknown to the mathematics research community—when he sent a paper to the prestigious journal Annals of Mathematics in April of 2013.
The editors were stunned. Working on math alone and in total obscurity ever since he received his Ph.D. at Purdue University in 1991, Zhang had solved a problem in number theory known as the twin primes conjecture, which had confounded leading experts for millennia. Less than a month later, as word of his advance rocketed through the mathematics community, he was presenting his work to a large audience at Harvard University.
A member of the generation whose education was truncated by the Cultural Revolution, he spent his teens doing forced labor in the countryside instead of attending school; he learned by himself from whatever books came his way.
By early 2014, he was not just on but at the top of the tenure track, appointed full professor at the University of New Hampshire, where he had worked as a full-time lecturer in a nontenure-track contract position with benefits, since 1999. On 17 September he was named a MacArthur "genius" Fellow—only one of several prestigious awards and honors he has received since publishing his article, including membership in the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS).
When he got his Ph.D., Zhang, like many others, could not get a tenure-track job. It took him 7 years after earning his doctorate to land even a contingent post. He supported himself in the interim with several jobs unrelated to his academic field, but he never gave up working on math or keeping up with his field. That dogged persistence was the key to his celebrated theorem, which he had worked on since 2009.
Zhang had learned perseverance early in life in his native China. A member of the generation whose education was truncated by the Cultural Revolution, he spent his teens doing forced labor in the countryside instead of attending school; he learned by himself from whatever books came his way. Finally able to enter Peking University in his 20s, he excelled at math, earning both bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Then he came to the United States to do doctoral work at Purdue.
Details of this astounding tale—the spectacular paper sent by an unknown working in obscurity, the instant recognition of its merit, even the appointment to the IAS—are reminiscent of another, much more famous, researcher.
What else Zhang’s career will hold remains to be seen. But already he has disproven several fundamental axioms of the academic world: that great original work (especially in math) is only done by young researchers, that the academic rank one holds reflects one’s intellectual merit, and that contingent faculty have nothing to contribute to their fields.