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image: Ramsey problems, such as r(4,5) are simple to state, but as shown in this graph, the possible solutions are nearly endless, making them very difficult to solve. view more

Ramsey problems, such as r(4,5) are simple to state, but as shown in this graph, the possible solutions are nearly endless, making them very difficult to solve.

We’ve all been there: staring at a math test with a problem that seems impossible to solve. What if finding the solution to a problem took almost a century? For mathematicians who dabble in Ramsey theory, this is very much the case. In fact, little progress had been made in solving Ramsey problems since the 1930s.

Now, University of California San Diego researchers Jacques Verstraete and Sam Mattheus have found the answer to r(4,t), a longstanding Ramsey problem that has perplexed the math world for decades.

In mathematical parlance, a graph is a series of points and the lines in between those points. Ramsey theory suggests that if the graph is large enough, you’re guaranteed to find some kind of order within it — either a set of points with no lines between them or a set of points with all possible lines between them (these sets are called “cliques”). This is written as r(s,t) where s are the points with lines and t are the points without lines.

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