Book Review: Fermat's Last Theorem (1997)

This book by Simon Singh is a good summer read because it’s short, informative, and the mathematics are dumbed down. I skipped them anyway.

Fermat’s Last Theorem focuses on a theorem scribbled by 17th century French mathematician Pierre de Fermat stating that there are no whole number solutions for xn + yn = zn for n greater than 2. Fermat coyly revealed that he had proof of his theorem, which eluded others of the mathematical persuasion for centuries, until one extremely persistent Brit announced that he had solved it in 1993. He had spent seven years in isolation working exclusively on the theorem.

Simon Singh tells the stories of the great minds who set out to solve the problem before Andrew Wiles came along. Even when they failed to construct a proof, these mathematicians created new techniques and even new branches of mathematics. All paths do not lead to a solution to Fermat’s Last Theorem, but many of them converged to lead Wiles to his conclusion.

Singh emphasizes the absolutism of the mathematical world, and why the insistence on flawless logic deterred so many eminent minds of the past, and almost unraveled Wiles’ years of work. Wile’s proof is over a hundred pages long, and one reviewer found a gap in one area, which, if not repaired, would have been enough to discredit the proof.

For Wiles, the stakes were so high because solving Fermat’s enigma was his childhood dream. He wanted to solve it since he chanced upon it in a library book when he was ten. Incidentally, when I was ten I resolved to own a cat, have an apartment, and hold a desk job. So we both achieved our dream! The difference, of course, is that his dream is a dream of higher cognitive creation and my dream sucks.

Wiles had a fantastic quote for when he finally, conclusively had proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, one year later: “Nothing I ever do again will mean as much.”

I turned to Fragrant Husband and repeated that line. “Can you say that about anything?” I asked him.

“Maybe just you,” he said.


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