Writing that rocks – Fermat’s Enigma

Classification: Science, non-fiction

You cannot imagine how excited I am right now. I get to tell you about one of my very favorite non-fiction books of all time, Fermat’s Enigma by Simon Singh.

I often find myself recommending this book to anyone who will listen. I try to shoehorn it into conversations whenever I can – which sometimes requires great topical leaps. You visited Guatemala last month and went cliff-diving and ate snake kabobs and met a long-lost cousin? That sounds exciting! You know what else is exciting? Fermat’s Enigma!

And so on.

I first heard of the book when I read a glowing review about it in the New York Times, some eight years ago. The next day I went out and bought a copy. It didn’t take much longer than one sitting to read; it’s that mesmerizing. The book follows the quest to solve a centuries-old mystery, and is full of suspense, and wonderfully eccentric and whip-smart characters, and prize money; there are dead-ends and setbacks and close calls.

Oh, I might as well tell you right now. Please remain in your seat and keep the aisles clear.

Fermat’s Enigma is about advanced mathematics.

I’m sorry, are you looking for your mouse so you can click yourself elsewhere? Well, I hid it, and I’m not giving it back until you’ve finished reading this. Trust me – the story is a thriller, and you don’t have to be a great mathematician to love it (I’m certainly not one.) This is no textbook; it’s one of the most exciting adventure stories I’ve ever read.

Here’s a summary:

In the early part of the 17th century, a delightful and mischievous Frenchman named Pierre de Fermat started fiddling around with mathematics as a hobby. He had no formal training, but he quickly proved to have a natural genius for the subject and made some interesting discoveries. For example: he figured out that 26 is the only number in existence that comes between a square (25) and a cube (27.)

In 1637, Fermat came up with the following theorem: “It is impossible for any number which is a power greater than the second power to be written as a sum of two like powers.” In other words, the equation “X(n power) + Y(n power) = Z(n power)” has no solution when n>2.

Pretty straightforward – but mathematics is all about proof. Fermat wrote his theorem in the margins of his math textbook, and then he scribbled something that would haunt generations of scientists:

I have a truly marvelous demonstration of this proposition which this margin is too narrow to contain.

He was claiming that he’d found the proof to his theory. And that was his last, enigmatic word on the subject.

For the next 360 years, Fermat’s theorem was the most famous unsolved math puzzle in the world. The theorem was believed to be true, but when nearly every top-tier scientist in the field tried to find the proof that Fermat had dangled in front of them, they all failed.

Three hundred and sixty years, people. And then, in the 1990’s, along came Andrew Wiles.

Wiles looks exactly how you expect a brilliant mathematician to appear (if you don’t mind employing wild stereotypes): enormous glasses, crooked teeth, distracted smile, far-away look in the eyes, hair flying up in every direction. And man oh man, what a beautiful mind.

As a ten-year-old child, Wiles had been captivated by the world’s most famous math riddle, and dreamed of solving it. While he was growing up and starting his career, momentum had been building toward a proof of Fermat’s theorem – indeed, at various times, people had announced they had a solution, only to have other researchers discover flaws in their work. Wiles was determined to succeed where everyone else had failed.

After seven years of mostly solitary effort, he finally believed he had found his proof, and in June of 1993 he gave a lecture to a packed house at Cambridge University, detailing his solution. When he finished, he laid down his chalk and said simply, “I think I’ll stop here.” Two hundred of the world’s finest mathematicians erupted in applause. Publications the world over celebrated his accomplishment

Of course, as in all good thrillers, there was one final set-back before ultimate triumph. When research “referees” pored over Wiles’s 200-page proof, they found an error. Although crushed, Wiles doggedly went back to the drawing board, and after another year of labor, he found a way to fix the hole in his work. This time, the proof was flawless, and it was accepted as one of the most significant achievements in modern-day science.

In Simon Singh’s hands, throughout the book, the most complicated math equations and theory all make beautiful sense. You cannot stop turning the pages. Imagine, for a moment, just how much talent a writer has to have, to pull off that trick. Singh (himself a physicist) turns the story into a cross between Number Theory for Dummies and The Bourne Identity – he makes the hunt for a mathematical proof read like the hunt for Carlos the Jackal. (Who is still alive, by the way, which I did not know. You learn something new every day.)

Singh’s little book, like the event it details, is stunning. In fact, writing about it has made me want to read it all over again. Just for kicks.

(If you remain unconvinced, take heart. My next book post will cover a fun work of fiction. I’m trying to decide between several, right now.)

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4 thoughts on “Writing that rocks – Fermat’s Enigma

  1. Book reviews are difficult to pull off. You do extraordinarily well. Your passion for this work shines clearly and I look forward to the read (I enjoy such things whenever I have the time). [Yes I saved the FB message that included your recommendation of this title] I am anxious to hear some more from you. Don’t spend all your precious time lauding the valuable work of others (unless someone volunteers to pay you for it, in which case you should write like mad:)

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