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According to Quanta Magazine (This article and its images were originally posted on Quanta Magazine November 15, 2018 at 11:15AM.)
Philip Gibbs is not a professional mathematician. So when he wanted a problem to chew on, he looked for one where even an amateur could make a difference. What he found was a challenge that could drive even the most exacting minds mad. In a paper completed earlier this year, Gibbs achieved a major advance on a 100-year-old question that hinges on the ability to accurately measure area down to the atomic scale.
The problem was first proposed by Henri Lebesgue, a French mathematician, in a 1914 letter to his friend Julius Pál. Lebesgue asked: What is the shape with the smallest area that can completely cover a host of other shapes (which all share a certain trait in common)?
In the century since, Lebesgue’s “universal covering” problem has turned out to be a mousetrap: Progress, when it’s come at all, has been astonishingly incremental. Gibbs’ improvement is dramatic by comparison, though you still have to squint to see it.
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