Murder Convict's Love for Math Lead to Brand New Discoveries in Number Theory

It all started with a letter.
Derya Ozdemir

No age or location is an inconvenient place to start loving mathematics, and in this case, that place happened to be a prison.

A first-time academic author's new mathematical study was published in the journal Research in Number Theory in January 2020, which happened to be written by Christopher Havens, who is serving a 25-year sentence since 2011 in the Washington Department of Correction after being convicted with murder. 


A passion found in solitary confinement

Havens developed a connection and love for mathematics while prisoned in solitary confinement after his incarceration, and now, he is the first author of a paper that shows regularities in the approximation of a vast class of numbers for the first time.

His results are exciting since they can open new fields of research in number theory. While they might now have an immediate application, finding new ways of writing numbers is quite the problem for number theorists.

Haven only had a pen and paper in his prison cell, and he was constantly exchanging ideas with his co-authors in Italy through letters.

A letter to start it all

His story with mathematics started like this:

Murder Convict's Love for Math Lead to Brand New Discoveries in Number Theory
Source: Marta Cerruti/The Conversation

One day, professor Marta Cerruti's partner, who was the production editor for Mathematical Sciences Publishers, was forwarded a letter by Havens, which read:

"To whom it may concern, I’m interested in finding more information on a subscription to Annals of Mathematics for personal use. I’m currently serving 25 years in the Washington Department of Correction and I’ve decided to use this time for self-betterment. I’m studying calculus and number theory, as numbers have become my mission. Can you please send me any information on your mathematical journal? Christopher Havens, #349034

PS. I am self-teaching myself and often get hung on problems for long periods of time. Is there anyone who I could correspond with, provided I send self-addressed stamped envelopes? There are no teachers here who can help me so I often spend hundreds on books that may or may not contain the help I need. Thank you."

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The "help"

It happened that Cerruti's father was the number theorist Havens needed to learn mathematics. Umberto Cerruti, a number theorist who was a professor of mathematics at the University of Torino, Italy, agreed to help Havens and sent him a problem to solve. What he received in return was a 120-centimeter-long piece of paper that contained a long and complicated formula.

Martha Cerruti wrote, "My father entered the formula into his computer and to his surprise, the results were correct! After this, my father invited Havens to work on a problem involving continued fractions he was working on."

They studied the linear transformation of an infinite continued fraction

In the resulting paper, Havens, Umberto Cerruti, and two other mathematicians studied the linear transformation of an infinite continued fraction and applied their conclusions to continued fractions. 

Number theory has given us discoveries in cryptography, and it is extremely crucial in banking and military communications. Time will show how their findings will affect the field.  

He sees maths as a way to "pay his debt to society"

Marta Cerruti, in order to write her article on The Conversation, had three 20-minute phonecalls with Havens. He stated that he sees maths as a way to "pay his debt to society."

"I definitely have plotted out a long term life plan to accommodate paying a debt that has no price. I know this path is permanent … and there never is a day that it’s is finally paid off. But this longevity in debt is not bad. It’s inspiration. Maybe this will sound stupid, but I serve my time in the company of the soul of my victim. I dedicate a lot of my biggest accomplishments to him."

His goal is to have a career in maths

His story is definitely inspirational. When he gets out, he wants to complete a bachelor's and a graduate degree if possible. He aims to have a career in mathematics and wants to transform the Prison Mathematics Project, which he started by working with prison staff to explain mathematics to other inmates, into a non-profit organization for inmates who are interested in mathematics. 

H/T The Conversation

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