The answer to life, the universe, and everything

Mathematics researcher Drew Sutherland helps solve decades-old sum-of-three-cubes puzzle, with help from "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."

Sandi Miller | Department of Mathematics

September 10, 2019

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This sum of three cubes puzzle, first set in 1954 at the University of Cambridge and known as the Diophantine Equation x3+y3+z3=k, challenged mathematicians to find solutions for numbers 1-100. With smaller numbers, this type of equation is easier to solve: for example, 29 could be written as 3

^{3}+ 1

^{3}+ 1

^{3}, while 32 is unsolvable. All were eventually solved, or proved unsolvable, using various techniques and supercomputers, except for two numbers: 33 and 42.

Booker devised an ingenious algorithm and spent weeks on his university’s supercomputer when he recently came up with a solution for 33. But when he turned to solve for 42, Booker found that the computing needed was an order of magnitude higher and might be beyond his supercomputer’s capability. Booker says he received many offers of help to find the answer, but instead he turned to his friend Andrew "Drew" Sutherland, a principal research scientist in the Department of Mathematics. “He’s a world’s expert at this sort of thing,” Booker says.

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“There is a single integer parameter, d, that determines a relatively small set of possibilities for x, y, and z such that the absolute value of z is below a chosen search bound B,” says Sutherland. “One then enumerates values for d and checks each of the possible x, y, z associated to d. In the attempt to crack 33, the search bound B was 1016, but this B turned out to be too small to crack 42; we instead used B = 1017 (1017 is 100 million billion).

Otherwise, the main difference between the search for 33 and the search for 42 would be the size of the search and the computer platform used. Thanks to a generous offer from UK-based Charity Engine, Booker and Sutherland were able to tap into the computing power from over 400,000 volunteers’ home PCs, all around the world, each of which was assigned a range of values for d. The computation on each PC runs in the background so the owner can still use their PC for other tasks.

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The method of using Charity Engine is similar to part of the plot surrounding the number 42 in the "Hitchhiker" novel: After Deep Thought’s answer of 42 proves unsatisfying to the scientists, who don’t know the question it is meant to answer, the supercomputer decides to compute the Ultimate Question by building a supercomputer powered by Earth … in other words, employing a worldwide massively parallel computation platform.

“This is another reason I really liked running this computation on Charity Engine — we actually did use a planetary-scale computer to settle a longstanding open question whose answer is 42.”

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Using the Charity Engine network is also more energy-efficient. “For the most part, we are using computational resources that would otherwise go to waste,” says Sutherland. “When you're sitting at your computer reading an email or working on a spreadsheet, you are using only a tiny fraction of the CPU resource available, and the Charity Engine application, which is based on the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC), takes advantage of this. As a result, the carbon footprint of this computation — related to the electricity our computations caused the PCs in the network to use above and beyond what they would have used, in any case — is lower than it would have been if we had used a supercomputer.”

Sutherland and Booker ran the computations over several months, but the final successful run was completed in just a few weeks. When the email from Charity Engine arrived, it provided the first solution to x3+y3+z3=42:

42 = (-80538738812075974)^3 + 80435758145817515^3 + 12602123297335631^3

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