Originally posted on the Nature news blog

Yitang Zhang, a mathematician who recently emerged from obscurity when he partly solved a long-standing puzzle in number theory, is one of the 2014 fellows of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The awards, commonly known as ‘genius grants’, were announced on September 17. Each comes with a no-strings-attached $625,000 stipend paid out over five years.

Zhang, a mathematician at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, was honored for his work on prime numbers, whole numbers that are divisible only by 1 or themselves. In April 2013 he published a partial solution to a 2,300-year-old question: how many ‘twin primes’ — or pairs of prime numbers separated by two, such as 41 and 43 — exist.

The twin-prime conjecture, often attributed to the Greek mathematician Euclid of Alexandria, posits that there is an infinite number of such pairs. But mathematicians have not been able to prove that the conjecture is true.

Zhang’s work has narrowed the problem, however. In his 2013 proof, Zhang showed that there are infinitely many prime pairs that are less than 70 million units apart.

Other science and maths-related winners of this year’s fellowships are listed below.

Danielle Bassett, a physicist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, studies the organizational principles at work in the brain, and how connections within the organ change over time and under stress. Her research, which draws on network science, has revealed that people with more ‘flexible’ brains — those that can easily make new connections — are better at learning new information.

Tami Bond, an environmental engineer at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, studies the effects of sooty ‘black carbon’ on climate and human health. Bond, who led the most comprehensive study to date of black carbon’s environmental effects, has found that the pollutant is second only to carbon dioxide in terms of its warming impact.

Jennifer Eberhardt, a social psychologist at Stanford University in California, studies the effects of racial bias on the criminal-justice system in the United States. Her analyses have shown, for example, that black defendants with stereotypical ‘black’ features are more likely to receive the death penalty in cases where victims are white.

Craig Gentry, a computer scientist at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York, has shown that encrypted data can be manipulated without being decrypted, and that programs themselves can be encrypted and still function.

Mark Hersam, a materials scientist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, is developing nanomaterials for a range of uses, such as solar cells and batteries, information technology and biotechnology.

Pamela Long, an historian of science based in Washington DC, has examined intersections between the arts and sciences and issues of authorship and intellectual property. She is now at work on a book tracing the development of engineering in 16th-century Rome.

Jacob Lurie, a mathematician at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, studies derived algebraic geometry. “With an entire generation of young theorists currently being trained on Lurie’s new foundations, his greatest impact is yet to come,” the MacArthur Foundation said in its award announcement. In June, Lurie was named a winner of the inaugural $3-million Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics.

This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on September 17, 2014.