Reports emerged this weekend that Kazakh mathematician Mukhtarbay Otelbaev has published a proposed solution to the Navier-Stokes existence and smoothness problem, one of the seven Millennium Prize problems offered by the Clay Mathematics Institute. Today I want to explain some of the background of this problem, what is known about Otelbaev’s proposed solution, and what a solution would mean for fluid dynamics.

The Navier Stokes Equation

The Navier-Stokes equation is one of the governing equations of fluid dynamics and is an expression of conservation of momentum in a fluid. With the exception of a few very specific and simplified cases, there is no known general solution to equation. Instead, the equation, or a simplified model, is solved numerically using supercomputers as part of direct numerical simulation (DNS) or other forms of computational fluid dynamics (CFD). These methods allow scientists and engineers to solve the equations of fluid motion for practical problems from flow through a pipe to flow around a re-entering spacecraft.

Existence and Smoothness

Although the Navier-Stokes equation has been known for more than 150 years and can be solved numerically for many situations, some basic mathematical aspects of the equation have not yet been proven. For example, no one has proven that a general solution always exists in three-dimensions and that the energy of such a solution is bounded at all points. Colloquially, this is known as the Navier-Stokes existence and smoothness problem. The Clay Mathematics Institute has a very specific problem statement (PDF) asking for a proof (or counter-proof) of the existence and smoothness of the Navier-Stokes equation for an incompressible fluid in three-dimensions. Otelbaev contends that he has provided such a proof.

Otelbaev’s Proposed Solution

Mukhtarbay Otelbaev is an experienced mathematician with numerous papers addressing related mathematical problems. His latest paper, entitled “Existence of a strong solution to the Navier-Stokes equation,” is freely available online (PDF, in Russian, with an English abstract at the end). There is an ongoing project to translate the paper into English, and mathematicians are already evaluating the validity of this proposed solution. From what I can gather of the paper, it specifically address the Millennium Prize problem and presents Otelbaev’s proposed solution for the existence and smoothness of an incompressible fluid in three dimensions with periodic boundary conditions.

What It Means

As with any announcement of a major technical breakthrough, skepticism is warranted while experts evaluate the proposal. If the mathematical community upholds the validity of Otelbaev’s proof, he may be offered the Millennium Prize and other honors. More importantly, his solution could lead to a better understanding of the nature of the equation and the flows it describes. It is not, in itself, a general solution to the Navier-Stokes equation, but it may be a stepping stone in the path toward one. In the meantime, scientists and engineers will continue to rely on a combination of theory, experiment, and computation to progress our understanding of fluid dynamics.

For More

The story of Otelbaev’s proof and the community’s evaluation of its validity is on-going. You can follow @fyfluiddynamics and the #NavierStokes hashtag on Twitter for updates and commentary. I’d like to specially thank Catriona Stokes, Praveen C, David Sarma, and Glenn Carlson for their helpful links and observations as this story develops.

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