Title: Fermat’s Last Theorem
Author: Simon Singh
Year Of Publication: 1997
Genre: Nonfiction, Science, Mathematics
Summary: Let me tell you, Pierre de Fermat could spin a riddle. In 1637, in the margins of an ancient Greek text he was reading, the French lawyer and mathematician claimed he had a proof for a seemingly simple equation. Called Fermat’s Last Theorem because it would found roughly 30 years after his death, Fermat claimed he could prove that no three positive integers a, b, and c can satisfy the equation an + bn + cn for any integer value of n greater than two. At this time, the cases n = 1 and n = 2 were known to have an infinite number of solutions.
Fermat didn’t include the proof because, as he wrote, there was insufficient space in the margin of the text, thus setting off one of math’s greatest mysteries and inspiring countless mathematicians on what would ultimately be a fruitless quest. That is, until 1994 when Brit Andrew Wiles proved the equation, thanks to roughly 300 years of advanced mathematics at his aid.
Fermat’s Last Theorem is about that quest. From Fermat’s challenge to Wiles proof, this riddle frustrated some of the greatest minds of modern mathematics and spurred countless developments in number theory and modularity. It’s also a great story. Historical tragedy turned triumph, the novel is full of complex concepts spelled out in laymen’s terms for English Majors like myself and provides an interesting case study into what keeps some of the world’s foremost thinkers up at night. But far from an insignificant vanity project (it was clear that whoever could solve this problem would attain an instant and worldwide fame), the mathematicians who worked on this equation would push mathematics forward in incalculable ways, setting up an interesting question: Andrew Wiles solved the Fermat’s Last Theorem with the aid of concepts unavailable to Fermat in the 1600’s. Did the Frenchman find some simpler solution (which some groups still believe) or did he lie, setting up what he would have believed a fool’s errand to frustrate generations to come? Either way, as is made clear in the book, mathematics ultimately thanks him for his work and readers for this story.
TL;DR: The story behind a seemingly dopey math problem that took 300 years and generations of mathematical advancements to solve.
Verdict: You don’t have to be a math nerd to enjoy (or understand) this book. Any fan of history will find something here.