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This article was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on March 11,
1998. All rights reserved.
The Andrew Wiles Story
In "Fermat’s Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the
World’s Greatest Mathematical Problem," Simon Singh tells the
intriguing saga of courage, skullduggery, cunning, and tragedy, that
began with a 17th-century judge with a gift for math, and ended —
but for a few postscripts — in June, 1993, when Princeton University
mathematics professor Andrew Wiles announced that he had a proof.
Singh speaks and signs his book at Micawber Books on Saturday, March
14, at 2 p.m.
Singh is the particle physicist from the University of Cambridge who
coproduced and directed the BBC documentary on Fermat’s theorem. In
his well-illustrated and compact book (Walker & Co., 1997, $23) he
spins a fascinating tale, replete with academic documentation, complete
with mathematical history from Pythagoras through Turing, but always
focused on the drama.
There is lots of drama. In the 19th century an amateur mathematician,
Paul Wolfskehl, had planned to commit suicide but in his last hours
before committing that act, he started working on the puzzle set forth
by a 17th century amateur math whiz, Pierre de Fermat. Intrigued by
Fermat’s Last Theorem, Wolfskehl was deterred from taking his life,
and though he never came up with a solution, he established a $50,000
prize for the person who did.
Eighty-nine years later Andrew Wiles won the prize and fulfilled a
childhood dream. In working on the puzzle Wiles used the obscure work
of Evariste Galois, who — knowing that he was likely to be killed
in a duel on the following day (his lover’s fiancee was a crack shot)
— stayed up all night scribbling his calculations.
Wiles also had to employ his own wiles. To avoid revealing to his
colleagues that he was using the Galois papers (if that were in the
wind someone else might come up with the theorem first) he put out
a false scent by publishing a paper having nothing to do with the
theorem. Then he worked in secret for seven years, telling only his
wife. "Wiles’ seven-year ordeal required immense stamina and courage,
but also an element of cunning and deceit," says Singh.
After Wiles announced his discovery in 1993, a team of referees discovered
one error. He locked himself away again and emerged, nearly a year
later, with the fix for his proof — and claimed the Wolfskehl
prize. But as Singh points out, Wiles now has one problem: When you
have solved the most intriguing mathematical puzzle in the world,
what do you work on next?
609-921-8454. A talk and signing by the author of "Fermat’s Enigma:
The Epic Quest to Solve the World’s Greatest Mathematical Problem."
Free. Saturday, March 14, 2 p.m.
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