Fermat’s Last Theorem
Simon Singh
The extraordinary story of the solving of a puzzle that has confounded mathematicians since the 17th century. The solution of Fermat’s Last Theorem is the most important mathematical development of the 20th century.In 1963 a schoolboy browsing in his local library stumbled across the world’s greatest mathematical problem: Fermat’s Last Theorem, a puzzle that every child can understand but which has baffled mathematicians for over 300 years. Aged just ten, Andrew Wiles dreamed that he would crack it. Wiles’s lifelong obsession with a seemingly simple challenge set by a long-dead Frenchman is an emotional tale of sacrifice and extraordinary determination. In the end, Wiles was forced to work in secrecy and isolation for seven years, harnessing all the power of modern maths to achieve his childhood dream. Many before him had tried and failed, including a 18-century philanderer who was killed in a duel. An 18-century Frenchwoman made a major breakthrough in solving the riddle, but she had to attend maths lectures at the Ecole Polytechnique disguised as a man since women were forbidden entry to the school. A remarkable story of human endeavour and intellectual brilliance over three centuries, Fermat ‘s Last Theorem will fascinate both specialist and general readers.
SIMON SINGH
Fermat’s Last Theorem
THE STORY OF A RIDDLE THAT CONFOUNDED THE
WORLD’S GREATEST MINDS FOR 358 YEARS
Copyright (#)
William Collins
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First published in paperback by Fourth Estate in 2002 (reprinted 4 times)
First published in Great Britain in 1997 by Fourth Estate
Copyright © 1997 by Simon Singh
Foreword copyright © 1997 by John Lynch
Line illustrations by Jed Mugford
The right of Simon Singh to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
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Source ISBN: 9781841157917
Ebook Edition © NOVEMBER 2012 ISBN: 9780007381999 Version: 2017-08-14
Dedication (#u1c3f8df4-5FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)
In memory
of Pakhar Singh Birring
CONTENTS
Cover (#u1c3f8df4-1FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)
Title Page (#u1c3f8df4-2FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)
Copyright (#u1c3f8df4-3FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)
Dedication (#u1c3f8df4-4FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)
Foreword (#u1c3f8df4-6FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)
Preface (#u1c3f8df4-7FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)
1 - ‘I Think I’ll Stop Here’ (#u1c3f8df4-8FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)
2 - The Riddler (#u1c3f8df4-16FF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)
3 - A Mathematical Disgrace (#litres_trial_promo)
4 - Into Abstraction (#litres_trial_promo)
5 - Proof by Contradiction (#litres_trial_promo)
6 - The Secret Calculation (#litres_trial_promo)
7 - A Slight Problem (#litres_trial_promo)
Epilogue - Grand Unified Mathematics (#litres_trial_promo)
Keep Reading (#litres_trial_promo)
Appendices (#litres_trial_promo)
Suggestions for Further Reading (#litres_trial_promo)
Index (#litres_trial_promo)
About the Author (#litres_trial_promo)
Also by the Author (#litres_trial_promo)
About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo)
Foreword (#)
We finally met across a room, not crowded, but large enough to hold the entire Mathematics Department at Princeton on their occasions of great celebration. On that particular afternoon, there were not so very many people around, but enough for me to be uncertain as to which one was Andrew Wiles. After a few moments I picked out a shy-looking man, listening to the conversation around him, sipping tea, and indulging in the ritual gathering of minds that mathematicians the world over engage in at around four o’clock in the afternoon. He simply guessed who I was.
It was the end of an extraordinary week. I had met some of the finest mathematicians alive, and begun to gain an insight into their world. But despite every attempt to pin down Andrew Wiles, to speak to him, and to convince him to take part in a BBC Horizon documentary film on his achievement, this was our first meeting. This was the man who had recently announced that he had found the holy grail of mathematics; the man who claimed he had proved Fermat’s Last Theorem. As we spoke, Wiles had a distracted and withdrawn air about him, and although he was polite and friendly, it was clear that he wished me as far away from him as possible. He explained very simply that he could not possibly focus on anything but his work, which was at a critical stage, but perhaps later, when the current pressures had been resolved, he would be pleased to take part. I knew, and he knew I knew, that he was facing the collapse of his life’s ambition, and that the holy grail he had held was now being revealed as no more than a rather beautiful, valuable, but straightforward drinking vessel. He had found a flaw in his heralded proof.
The story of Fermat’s Last Theorem is unique. By the time I first met Andrew Wiles, I had come to realise that it is truly one of the greatest stories in the sphere of scientific or academic endeavour. I had seen the headlines in the summer of 1993, when the proof had put maths on the front pages of national newspapers around the world. At that time I had only a vague recollection of what the Last Theorem was, but saw that it was obviously something very special, and something that had the smell of a Horizon film to it. I spent the next weeks talking to many mathematicians: those closely involved in the story, or close to Andrew, and those who simply shared the thrill of witnessing a great moment in their field. All generously shared their insights into mathematical history, and patiently talked me through what little understanding I could achieve of the concepts involved. Rapidly it became clear that this was subject matter that perhaps only half a dozen people in the world could fully grasp. For a while I wondered if I was insane to attempt to make a film. But from those mathematicians I also learned of the rich history, and the deeper significance of Fermat to mathematics and its practitioners, and that, I realized, was where the real story lay.
I learned of the ancient Greek origins of the problem, and that Fermat’s Last Theorem was the Himalayan peak of number theory. I was introduced to the aesthetic beauty of maths, and I began to appreciate what it is to describe mathematics as the language of nature. Through Wiles’s contemporaries I grasped the herculean nature of his work in pulling together all the most recent techniques of number theory to apply to his proof. From his friends in Princeton I heard of the intricate progress of Andrew’s years of isolated study. I built up an extraordinary picture around Andrew Wiles, and the puzzle that dominated his life, but I seemed destined never to meet the man himself.
Although the maths involved in Wiles’s proof is some of the toughest in the world, I found that the beauty of Fermat’s Last Theorem lies in the fact that the problem itself is supremely simple to understand. It is a puzzle that is stated in terms familiar to every schoolchild. Pierre de Fermat was a man in the Renaissance tradition, who was at the centre of the rediscovery of ancient Greek knowledge, but he asked a question that the Greeks would not have thought to ask, and in so doing produced what became the hardest problem on earth for others to solve. Tantalisingly, he left a note for posterity suggesting that he had an answer, but not what it was. That was the beginning of the chase that lasted three centuries.
That time-span underlies the significance of this puzzle. It is hard to conceive of any problem, in any discipline of science, so simply and clearly stated that could have withstood the test of advancing knowledge for so long. Consider the leaps in understanding in physics, chemistry, biology, medicine and engineering that have occurred since the seventeenth century. We have progressed from ‘humours’ in medicine to gene-splicing, we have identified the fundamental atomic particles, and we have placed men on the moon, but in number theory Fermat’s Last Theorem remained inviolate.
For some time in my research I looked for a reason why the Last Theorem mattered to anyone but a mathematician, and why it would be important to make a programme about it. Maths has a multitude of practical applications, but in the case of number theory the most exciting uses that I was offered were in cryptography, in the design of acoustic baffling, and in communication from distant spacecraft. None of these seemed likely to draw in an audience. What was far more compelling were the mathematicians themselves, and the sense of passion that they all expressed when talking of Fermat.
Maths is one of the purest forms of thought, and to outsiders mathematicians may seem almost other-worldly. The thing that struck me in all my discussions with them was the extraordinary precision of their conversation. A question was rarely answered immediately, I would often have to wait while the precise structure of the answer was resolved in the mind, but it would then emerge, as articulate and careful a statement as I could have wished for. When I tackled Andrew’s friend Peter Sarnak on this, he explained that mathematicians simply hate to make a false statement. Of course they use intuition and inspiration, but formal statements have to be absolute. Proof is what lies at the heart of maths, and is what marks it out from other sciences. Other sciences have hypotheses that are tested against experimental evidence until they fail, and are overtaken by new hypotheses. In maths, absolute proof is the goal, and once something is proved, it is proved forever, with no room for change. In the Last Theorem, mathematicians had their greatest challenge of proof, and the person who found the answer would receive the adulation of the entire discipline.
Prizes were offered, and rivalry flourished. The Last Theorem has a rich history that touches death and deception, and it has even spurred on the development of maths. As the Harvard mathematician Barry Mazur has put it, Fermat added a certain ‘animus’ to those areas of maths that were associated with early attempts at the proof. Ironically, it turned out that just such an area of maths was central to Wiles’s final proof.
Gradually picking up an understanding of this unfamiliar field, I came to appreciate Fermat’s Last Theorem as central to, and even a parallel for the development of maths itself. Fermat was the father of modern number theory, and since his time mathematics had evolved, progressed and diversified into many arcane areas, where new techniques had spawned new areas of maths, and become ends in themselves. As the centuries passed, the Last Theorem came to seem less and less relevant to the cutting edge of mathematical research, and more and more turned into a curiosity. But it is now clear that its centrality to maths never diminished.
Problems around numbers, such as the one Fermat posed, are like playground puzzles, and mathematicians like solving puzzles. To Andrew Wiles it was a very special puzzle, and nothing less than his life’s ambition. Thirty years before, as a child, he had been inspired by Fermat’s Last Theorem, having stumbled upon it in a public library book. His childhood and adulthood dream was to solve the problem, and when he first revealed a proof in that summer of 1993, it came at the end of seven years of dedicated work on the problem, a degree of focus and determination that is hard to imagine. Many of the techniques he used had not been created when he began. He also drew together the work of many fine mathematicians, linking ideas and creating concepts that others had feared to attempt. In a sense, reflected Barry Mazur, it turned out that everyone had been working on Fermat, but separately and without having it as a goal, for the proof had required all the power of modern maths to be brought to bear upon its solution. What Andrew had done was tie together once again areas of maths that had seemed far apart. His work therefore seemed to be a justification of all the diversification that maths had undergone since the problem had been stated.
At the heart of his proof of Fermat, Andrew had proved an idea known as the Taniyama-Shimura Conjecture, which created a new bridge between wildly different mathematical worlds. For many, the goal of one unified mathematics is supreme, and this was a glimpse of just such a world. So in proving Fermat, Andrew Wiles had cemented some of the most important number theory of the post-war period, and had secured the base of a pyramid of conjectures that were built upon it. This was no longer simply solving the longest-standing mathematical puzzle, but was pushing the very boundaries of mathematics itself. It was as if Fermat’s simple problem, born at a time when maths was in its infancy, had been waiting for this moment.
The story of Fermat had ended in the most spectacular fashion. For Andrew Wiles, it meant the end of professional isolation of a kind almost alien to maths, which is usually a collaborative activity. Ritual afternoon tea in mathematics institutes the world over is a time when ideas come together, and sharing insight before publication is the norm. Ken Ribet, a mathematician who was himself central to the proof, only half jokingly suggested to me that it is the insecurity of mathematicians that requires the support structure of their colleagues. Andrew Wiles had eschewed all that, and kept his work to himself in all but the final stages. That too was a measure of the importance of Fermat. He had a real driving passion to be the one who solved this problem, a passion strong enough to devote seven years of his life and keep his goal to himself. He had known that however irrelevant the problem had seemed, competition for Fermat had never lessened, and he could never have risked revealing what he was doing.
After weeks of researching the field, I had arrived in Princeton. For mathematicians, the level of emotion was intense. I had found a story of competition, success, isolation, genius, triumph, jealousy, intense pressure, loss and even tragedy. At the heart of that crucial Taniyama-Shimura Conjecture lay the tragic post-war life in Japan of Yutaka Taniyama, whose story I was privileged to hear from his close friend Goro Shimura. From Shimura too I learned of the notion of ‘goodness’ in maths, where things simply feel right, because they are good. Somehow, the sense of goodness pervaded the atmosphere of mathematics that summer. All were revelling in the glorious moment.
With all this in train, small wonder at the weight of responsibility that Andrew felt as the flaw had gradually emerged over the autumn of 1993. With the eyes of the world upon him, and his colleagues calling to have the proof made public, somehow, and only he knows how, he didn’t crack. He had moved from doing maths in privacy and at his own pace to suddenly working in public. Andrew is an intensely private man, who fought hard to keep his family sheltered from the storm that was breaking around him. Throughout that week while I was in Princeton, I called, I left notes at his office, on his doorstep, and with his friends; I even provided a gift of English tea and Marmite. But he resisted my overtures, until that chance meeting on the day of my departure. A quiet, intense conversation followed, that in the end lasted barely fifteen minutes.
When we parted that afternoon there was an understanding between us. If he managed to repair the proof, then he would come to me to discuss a film; I was prepared to wait. But as I flew home to London that night it seemed to me that the television programme was dead. No one had ever repaired a hole in the many attempted proofs of Fermat in three centuries. History was littered with false claims, and much as I wished that he would be the exception, it was hard to imagine Andrew as anything but another headstone in that mathematical graveyard.
A year later I received the call. After an extraordinary mathematical twist, and a flash of true insight and inspiration, Andrew had finally brought an end to Fermat in his professional life. A year after that, we found the time for him to devote to filming. By this time I had invited Simon Singh to join me in making the film, and together we spent time with Andrew, learning from the man himself the full story of those seven years of isolated study, and his year of hell that followed. As we filmed, Andrew told us, as he had told no one before, of his innermost feelings about what he had done; how for thirty years he had hung on to a childhood dream; how so much of the maths he had ever studied had been, without his really knowing it at the time, really a gathering of tools for the Fermat challenge that had dominated his career; how nothing would ever be the same; of his sense of loss for the problem that would no longer be his constant companion; and of the uplifting sense of release that he now felt. For a field in which the subject matter is technically about as difficult for a lay audience to understand as can be imagined, the level of emotional charge in our conversations was greater than any I have experienced in a career in science film making. For Andrew it was the end of a chapter in his life. For me it was a privilege to be close to it.
The film was transmitted on BBC Television as Horizon: Fermat’s Last Theorem. Simon Singh has now developed those insights and intimate conversations, together with the full richness of the Fermat story and the history and mathematics that have always hung around it, into this book, which is a complete and enlightening record of one of the greatest stories in human thinking.
John Lynch
Editor of BBC TV’s Horizon series March 1997
Preface (#)
The story of Fermat’s Last Theorem is inextricably linked with the history of mathematics, touching on all the major themes of number theory. It provides a unique insight into what drives mathematics and, perhaps more importantly, what inspires mathematicians. The Last Theorem is at the heart of an intriguing saga of courage, skulduggery, cunning and tragedy, involving all the greatest heroes of mathematics.
Fermat’s Last Theorem has its origins in the mathematics of ancient Greece, two thousand years before Pierre de Fermat constructed the problem in the form we know it today. Hence, it links the foundations of mathematics created by Pythagoras to the most sophisticated ideas in modern mathematics. In writing this book I have chosen a largely chronological structure which begins by describing the revolutionary ethos of the Pythagorean Brotherhood, and ends with Andrew Wiles’s personal story of his struggle to find a solution to Fermat’s conundrum.
Chapter 1 (#u1c3f8df4-8FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474) tells the story of Pythagoras, and describes how Pythagoras’ theorem is the direct ancestor of the Last Theorem. This chapter also discusses some of the fundamental concepts of mathematics which will recur throughout the book. Chapter 2 (#u1c3f8df4-16FF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474) takes the story from ancient Greece to seventeenth-century France, where Pierre de Fermat created the most profound riddle in the history of mathematics. To convey the extraordinary character of Fermat and his contribution to mathematics, which goes far beyond the Last Theorem, I have spent several pages describing his life, and some of his other brilliant discoveries.
Chapters 3 (#litres_trial_promo) and 4 (#litres_trial_promo) describe some of the attempts to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem during the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although these efforts ended in failure they led to a marvellous arsenal of mathematical techniques and tools, some of which have been integral to the very latest attempts to prove the Last Theorem. In addition to describing the mathematics I have devoted much of these chapters to the mathematicians who became obsessed by Fermat’s legacy. Their stories show how mathematicians were prepared to sacrifice everything in the search for truth, and how mathematics has evolved through the centuries.
The remaining chapters of the book chronicle the remarkable events of the last forty years which have revolutionised the study of Fermat’s Last Theorem. In particular Chapters 6 (#litres_trial_promo) and 7 (#litres_trial_promo) focus on the work of Andrew Wiles, whose breakthroughs in the last decade astonished the mathematical community. These later chapters are based on extensive interviews with Wiles. This was a unique opportunity for me to hear at first hand one of the most extraordinary intellectual journeys of the twentieth century and I hope that I have been able to convey the creativity and heroism that was required during Wiles’s ten-year ordeal.
In telling the tale of Pierre de Fermat and his baffling riddle I have tried to describe the mathematical concepts without resorting to equations, but inevitably x, y and z do occasionally rear their ugly heads. When equations do appear in the text I have endeavoured to provide sufficient explanation such that even readers with no background in mathematics will be able to understand their significance. For those readers with a slightly deeper knowledge of the subject I have provided a series of appendices which expand on the mathematical ideas contained in the main text. In addition I have included a list of further reading, which is generally aimed at providing the layperson with more detail about particular areas of mathematics.
This book would not have been possible without the help and involvement of many people. In particular I would like to thank Andrew Wiles, who went out of his way to give long and detailed interviews during a time of intense pressure. During my seven years as a science journalist I have never met anybody with a greater level of passion and commitment to their subject, and I am eternally grateful that Professor Wiles was prepared to share his story with me.
I would also like to thank the other mathematicians who helped me in the writing of this book and who allowed me to interview them at length. Some of them have been deeply involved in tackling Fermat’s Last Theorem, while others were witnesses to the historic events of the last forty years. The hours I spent quizzing and chatting with them were enormously enjoyable and I appreciate their patience and enthusiasm while explaining so many beautiful mathematical concepts to me. In particular I would like to thank John Coates, John Conway, Nick Katz, Barry Mazur, Ken Ribet, Peter Sarnak, Goro Shimura and Richard Taylor.
I have tried to illustrate this book with as many portraits as possible to give the reader a better sense of the characters involved in the story of Fermat’s Last Theorem. Various libraries and archives have gone out of their way to help me, and in particular I would like to thank Susan Oakes of the London Mathematical Society, Sandra Cumming of the Royal Society and Ian Stewart of Warwick University. I am also grateful to Jacquelyn Savani of Princeton University, Duncan McAngus, Jeremy Gray, Paul Balister and the Isaac Newton Institute for their help in finding research material. Thanks also go to Patrick Walsh, Christopher Potter, Bernadette Alves, Sanjida O’Connell and my parents for their comments and support throughout the last year.
Finally, many of the interviews quoted in this book were obtained while I was working on a television documentary on the subject of Fermat’s Last Theorem. I would like to thank the BBC for allowing me to use this material, and in particular I owe a debt of gratitude to John Lynch, who worked with me on the documentary, and who helped to inspire my interest in the subject.
Simon Singh
Thakarki, Phagwara 1997
1 ‘I Think I’ll Stop Here’ (#)
Archimedes will be remembered when Aeschylus is forgotten, because languages die and mathematical ideas do not. ‘Immortality’ may be a silly word, but probably a mathematician has the best chance of whatever it may mean.
G.H. Hardy
23 June 1993, Cambridge
It was the most important mathematics lecture of the century. Two hundred mathematicians were transfixed. Only a quarter of them fully understood the dense mixture of Greek symbols and algebra that covered the blackboard. The rest were there merely to witness what they hoped would be a truly historic occasion.
The rumours had started the previous day. Electronic mail over the Internet had hinted that the lecture would culminate in a solution to Fermat’s Last Theorem, the world’s most famous mathematical problem. Such gossip was not uncommon. The subject of Fermat’s Last Theorem would often crop up over tea, and mathematicians would speculate as to who might be doing what. Sometimes mathematical mutterings in the senior common room would turn the speculation into rumours of a breakthrough, but nothing had ever materialised.
This time the rumour was different. One Cambridge research student was so convinced that it was true that he dashed to the bookies to bet £10 that Fermat’s Last Theorem would be solved within the week. However, the bookie smelt a rat and refused to accept his wager. This was the fifth student to have approached him that day, all of them asking to place the identical bet. Fermat’s Last Theorem had baffled the greatest minds on the planet for over three centuries, but now even bookmakers were beginning to suspect that it was on the verge of being proved.
The three blackboards became filled with calculations and the lecturer paused. The first board was erased and the algebra continued. Each line of mathematics appeared to be one tiny step closer to the solution, but after thirty minutes the lecturer had still not announced the proof. The professors crammed into the front rows waited eagerly for the conclusion. The students standing at the back looked to their seniors for hints of what the conclusion might be. Were they watching a complete proof to Fermat’s Last Theorem, or was the lecturer merely outlining an incomplete and anticlimactic argument?
The lecturer was Andrew Wiles, a reserved Englishman who had emigrated to America in the 1980s and taken up a professorship at Princeton University where he had earned a reputation as one of the most talented mathematicians of his generation. However, in recent years he had almost vanished from the annual round of conferences and seminars, and colleagues had begun to assume that Wiles was finished. It is not unusual for brilliant young minds to burn out, a point noted by the mathematician Alfred Adler: ‘The mathematical life of a mathematician is short. Work rarely improves after the age of twenty-five or thirty. If little has been accomplished by then, little will ever be accomplished.’
‘Young men should prove theorems, old men should write books,’ observed G.H. Hardy in his book A Mathematician’s Apology. ‘No mathematician should ever forget that mathematics, more than any other art or science, is a young man’s game. To take a simple illustration, the average age of election to the Royal Society is lowest in mathematics.’ His own most brilliant student Srinivasa Ramanujan was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society at the age of just thirty-one, having made a series of outstanding breakthroughs during his youth. Despite having received very little formal education in his home village of Kumbakonam in South India, Ramanujan was able to create theorems and solutions which had evaded mathematicians in the West. In mathematics the experience that comes with age seems less important than the intuition and daring of youth. When he posted his results to Hardy, the Cambridge professor was so impressed that he invited him to abandon his job as a lowly clerk in South India and attend Trinity College, where he could interact with some of the world’s foremost number theorists. Sadly the harsh East Anglian winters were too much for Ramanujan who contracted tuberculosis and died at the age of thirty-three.
Other mathematicians have had equally brilliant but short careers. The nineteenth-century Norwegian Niels Henrik Abel made his greatest contribution to mathematics at the age of nineteen and died in poverty, just eight years later, also of tuberculosis. Charles Hermite said of him, ‘He has left mathematicians something to keep them busy for five hundred years’, and it is certainly true that Abel’s discoveries still have a profound influence on today’s number theorists. Abel’s equally gifted contemporary Evariste Galois also made his breakthroughs while still a teenager and then died aged just twenty-one.
These examples are not intended to show that mathematicians die prematurely and tragically but rather that their most profound ideas are generally conceived while they are young, and as Hardy once said, ‘I do not know an instance of a major mathematical advance initiated by a man past fifty.’ Middle-aged mathematicians often fade into the background and occupy their remaining years teaching or administrating rather than researching. In the case of Andrew Wiles nothing could be further from the truth. Although he had reached the grand old age of forty he had spent the last seven years working in complete secrecy, attempting to solve the single greatest problem in mathematics. While others suspected he had dried up, Wiles was making fantastic progress, inventing new techniques and tools which he was now ready to reveal. His decision to work in absolute isolation was a high-risk strategy and one which was unheard of in the world of mathematics.
Without inventions to patent, the mathematics department of any university is the least secretive of all. The community prides itself in an open and free exchange of ideas and tea-time breaks have evolved into daily rituals during which concepts are shared and explored over biscuits and Earl Grey. As a result it is increasingly common to find papers being published by co-authors or teams of mathematicians and consequently the glory is shared out equally. However, if Professor Wiles had genuinely discovered a complete and accurate proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, then the most wanted prize in mathematics was his and his alone. The price he had to pay for his secrecy was that he had not previously discussed or tested any of his ideas with the mathematics community and therefore there was a significant chance that he had made some fundamental error.
Ideally Wiles had wanted to spend more time going over his work to allow him to check fully his final manuscript. Then the unique opportunity arose to announce his discovery at the Isaac Newton Institute in Cambridge and he abandoned caution. The sole aim of the institute’s existence is to bring together the world’s greatest intellects for a few weeks in order to hold seminars on a cutting-edge research topic of their choice. Situated on the outskirts of the university, away from students and other distractions, the building is especially designed to encourage the academics to concentrate on collaboration and brainstorming. There are no dead-end corridors in which to hide and every office faces a central forum. The mathematicians are supposed to spend time in this open area, and are discouraged from keeping their office doors closed. Collaboration while moving around the institute is also encouraged – even the elevator, which only travels three floors, contains a blackboard. In fact every room in the building has at least one blackboard, including the bathrooms. On this occasion the seminars at the Newton Institute came under the heading of ‘L-functions and Arithmetic’. All the world’s top number theorists had been gathered together in order to discuss problems relating to this highly specialised area of pure mathematics, but only Wiles realised that L-functions might hold the key to solving Fermat’s Last Theorem.
Although he had been attracted by having the opportunity to reveal his work to such an eminent audience, the main reason for making the announcement at the Newton Institute was that it was in his home town, Cambridge. This was where Wiles had been born, it was here he grew up and developed his passion for numbers, and it was in Cambridge that he had alighted on the problem which was to dominate the rest of his life.
The Last Problem
In 1963, when he was ten years old, Andrew Wiles was already fascinated by mathematics. ‘I loved doing the problems in school, I’d take them home and make up new ones of my own. But the best problem I ever found I discovered in my local library.’
One day, while wandering home from school, young Wiles decided to visit the library in Milton Road. It was rather impoverished compared with the libraries of the colleges, but nonetheless it had a generous collection of puzzle books and this is what often caught Andrew’s attention. These books were packed with all sorts of scientific conundrums and mathematical riddles, and for each question the solution would be conveniently laid out somewhere in the final few pages. But this time Andrew was drawn to a book with only one problem, and no solution.
The book was The Last Problem by Eric Temple Bell, the history of a mathematical problem which has its roots in ancient Greece, but which only reached full maturity in the seventeenth century. It was then that the great French mathematician Pierre de Fermat inadvertently set it as a challenge for the rest of the world. One great mathematician after another had been humbled by Fermat’s legacy and for three hundred years nobody had been able to solve it. There are other unsolved questions in mathematics, but what makes Fermat’s problem so special is its deceptive simplicity. Thirty years after first reading Bell’s account, Wiles told me how he felt the moment he was introduced to Fermat’s Last Theorem: ‘It looked so simple, and yet all the great mathematicians in history couldn’t solve it. Here was a problem that I, a ten-year-old, could understand and I knew from that moment that I would never let it go. I had to solve it.’
The problem looks so straightforward because it is based on the one piece of mathematics that everyone can remember – Pythagoras’ theorem:
In a right-angled triangle the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides.
As a result of this Pythagorean ditty, the theorem has been scorched into millions if not billions of human brains. It is the fundamental theorem that every innocent schoolchild is forced to learn. But despite the fact that it can be understood by a ten-year-old, Pythagoras’ creation was the inspiration for a problem which had thwarted the greatest mathematical minds of history.
Pythagoras of Samos was one of the most influential and yet mysterious figures in mathematics. Because there are no first-hand accounts of his life and work, he is shrouded in myth and legend, making it difficult for historians to separate fact from fiction. What seems certain is that Pythagoras developed the idea of numerical logic and was responsible for the first golden age of mathematics. Thanks to his genius numbers were no longer merely used to count and calculate, but were appreciated in their own right. He studied the properties of particular numbers, the relationships between them and the patterns they formed. He realised that numbers exist independently of the tangible world and therefore their study was untainted by the inaccuracies of perception. This meant he could discover truths which were independent of opinion or prejudice and which were more absolute than any previous knowledge.
Living in the sixth century BC, Pythagoras gained his mathematical skills on his travels throughout the ancient world. Some tales would have us believe that he travelled as far as India and Britain, but what is more certain is that he gathered many mathematical techniques and tools from the Egyptians and Babylonians. Both these ancient peoples had gone beyond the limits of simple counting and were capable of performing complex calculations which enabled them to create sophisticated accounting systems and construct elaborate buildings. Indeed they saw mathematics as merely a tool for solving practical problems; the motivation behind discovering some of the basic rules of geometry was to allow reconstruction of field boundaries which were lost in the annual flooding of the Nile. The word itself, geometry, means ‘to measure the earth’.
Pythagoras observed that the Egyptians and Babylonians conducted each calculation in the form of a recipe which could be followed blindly. The recipes, which would have been passed down through the generations, always gave the correct answer and so nobody bothered to question them or explore the logic underlying the equations. What was important for these civilisations was that a calculation worked – why it worked was irrelevant.
After twenty years of travel Pythagoras had assimilated all the mathematical rules in the known world. He set sail for his home island of Samos in the Aegean Sea with the intention of founding a school devoted to the study of philosophy and in particular concerned with research into his newly acquired mathematical rules. He wanted to understand numbers, not merely exploit them. He hoped to find a plentiful supply of free-thinking students who could help him develop radical new philosophies, but during his absence the tyrant Polycrates had turned the once liberal Samos into an intolerant and conservative society. Polycrates invited Pythagoras to join his court, but the philosopher realised that this was only a manoeuvre aimed at silencing him and therefore declined the honour. Instead he left the city in favour of a cave in a remote part of the island, where he could contemplate without fear of persecution.
Pythagoras did not relish his isolation and eventually resorted to bribing a young boy to be his first pupil. The identity of the young boy is uncertain but some historians have suggested that his name was also Pythagoras, and that the student would later gain fame as the first person to suggest that athletes should eat meat to improve their physique. Pythagoras, the teacher, paid his student three oboli for each lesson he attended and noticed that as the weeks passed the boy’s initial reluctance to learn was transformed into an enthusiasm for knowledge. To test his pupil Pythagoras pretended that he could no longer afford to pay the student and that the lessons would have to stop, at which point the boy offered to pay for his education rather than have it ended. The pupil had become a disciple. Unfortunately this was Pythagoras’ only conversion on Samos. He did temporarily establish a school, known as the Semicircle of Pythagoras, but his views on social reform were unacceptable and the philosopher was forced to flee the colony with his mother and his one and only disciple.
Pythagoras departed for southern Italy, which was then a part of Magna Graecia, and settled in Croton where he was fortunate in finding the ideal patron in Milo, the wealthiest man in Croton and one of the strongest men in history. Although Pythagoras’ reputation as the sage of Samos was already spreading across Greece, Milo’s fame was even greater. Milo was a man of Herculean proportions who had been champion of the Olympic and Pythian Games a record twelve times. In addition to his athleticism Milo also appreciated and studied philosophy and mathematics. He set aside part of his house and provided Pythagoras with enough room to establish a school. So it was that the most creative mind and the most powerful body formed a partnership.
Secure in his new home Pythagoras founded the Pythagorean Brotherhood – a band of six hundred followers who were capable not only of understanding his teachings, but who could add to them by creating new ideas and proofs. Upon entering the Brotherhood each follower had to donate all their worldly possessions to a common fund and should anybody ever leave they would receive twice the amount they had originally donated and a tombstone would be erected in their memory. The Brotherhood was an egalitarian school and included several sisters. Pythagoras’ favourite student was Milo’s own daughter, the beautiful Theano, and, despite the difference in their ages, they eventually married.
Soon after founding the Brotherhood, Pythagoras coined the word philosopher, and in so doing defined the aims of his school. While attending the Olympic Games, Leon, Prince of Phlius, asked Pythagoras how he would describe himself. Pythagoras replied, ‘I am a philosopher,’ but Leon had not heard the word before and asked him to explain.
Life, Prince Leon, may well be compared with these public Games for in the vast crowd assembled here some are attracted by the acquisition of gain, others are led on by the hopes and ambitions of fame and glory. But among them there are a few who have come to observe and to understand all that passes here.
It is the same with life. Some are influenced by the love of wealth while others are blindly led on by the mad fever for power and domination, but the finest type of man gives himself up to discovering the meaning and purpose of life itself. He seeks to uncover the secrets of nature. This is the man I call a philosopher for although no man is completely wise in all respects, he can love wisdom as the key to nature’s secrets.
Although many were aware of Pythagoras’ aspirations nobody outside of the Brotherhood knew the details or extent of his success. Each member of the school was forced to swear an oath never to reveal to the outside world any of their mathematical discoveries. Even after Pythagoras’ death a member of the Brotherhood was drowned for breaking his oath – he publicly announced the discovery of a new regular solid, the dodecahedron, constructed from twelve regular pentagons. The highly secretive nature of the Pythagorean Brotherhood is part of the reason that myths have developed surrounding the strange rituals which they might have practised, and similarly this is why there are so few reliable accounts of their mathematical achievements.
What is known for certain is that Pythagoras established an ethos which changed the course of mathematics. The Brotherhood was effectively a religious community and one of the idols they worshipped was Number. By understanding the relationships between numbers, they believed that they could uncover the spiritual secrets of the universe and bring themselves closer to the gods. In particular the Brotherhood focused its attention on the study of counting numbers (1, 2, 3, …) and fractions. Counting numbers are sometimes called whole numbers, and together with fractions (ratios between whole numbers) are technically referred to as rational numbers. Among the infinity of numbers, the Brotherhood looked for those with special significance, and some of the most special were the so-called ‘perfect’ numbers.
According to Pythagoras numerical perfection depended on a number’s divisors (numbers which will divide perfectly into the original one). For instance, the divisors of 12 are 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6. When the sum of a number’s divisors is greater than the number itself, it is called an ‘excessive’ number. Therefore 12 is an excessive number because its divisors add up to 16. On the other hand, when the sum of a number’s divisors is less than the number itself, it is called ‘defective’. So 10 is a defective number because its divisors (1, 2 and 5) add up to only 8.
The most significant and rarest numbers are those whose divisors add up exactly to the number itself and these are the perfect numbers. The number 6 has the divisors 1, 2 and 3, and consequently it is a perfect number because 1 + 2 + 3 = 6. The next perfect number is 28, because 1 + 2 + 4 + 7 + 14 = 28.
As well as having mathematical significance for the Brotherhood, the perfection of 6 and 28 was acknowledged by other cultures who observed that the moon orbits the earth every 28 days and who declared that God created the world in 6 days. In The City of God, St Augustine argues that although God could have created the world in an instant he decided to take six days in order to reflect the universe’s perfection. St Augustine observed that 6 was not perfect because God chose it, but rather that the perfection was inherent in the nature of the number: ‘6 is a number perfect in itself, and not because God created all things in six days; rather the inverse is true; God created all things in six days because this number is perfect. And it would remain perfect even if the work of the six days did not exist.’
As the counting numbers get bigger the perfect numbers become harder to find. The third perfect number is 496, the fourth is 8,128, the fifth is 33,550,336 and the sixth is 8,589,869,056. As well as being the sum of their divisors, Pythagoras noted that all perfect numbers exhibit several other elegant properties. For example, perfect numbers are always the sum of a series of consecutive counting numbers. So we have
Pythagoras was entertained by perfect numbers but he was not satisfied with merely collecting these special numbers; instead he desired to discover their deeper significance. One of his insights was that perfection was closely linked to ‘twoness’. The numbers 4 (2 × 2), 8 (2 × 2 × 2), 16 (2 × 2 × 2 × 2), etc., are known as powers of 2, and can be written as 2
, where the n represents the number of 2’s multiplied together. All these powers of 2 only just fail to be perfect, because the sum of their divisors always adds up to one less than the number itself. This makes them only slightly defective:
Two centuries later Euclid would refine Pythagoras’ link between twoness and perfection. Euclid discovered that perfect numbers are always the multiple of two numbers, one of which is a power of 2 and the other being the next power of 2 minus 1. That is to say,
Today’s computers have continued the search for perfect numbers and find such enormously large examples as 2
× (2
– 1), a number with over 130,000 digits, which obeys Euclid’s rule.
Pythagoras was fascinated by the rich patterns and properties possessed by perfect numbers and respected their subtlety and cunning. At first sight perfection is a relatively simple concept to grasp and yet the ancient Greeks were unable to fathom some of the fundamental points of the subject. For example, although there are plenty of numbers whose divisors add up to one less than the number itself, that is to say only slightly defective, there appear to be no numbers which are slightly excessive. The Greeks were unable to find any numbers whose divisors added up to one more than the number itself, but they could not explain why this was the case. Frustratingly, although they failed to discover slightly excessive numbers, they could not prove that no such numbers existed. Understanding the apparent lack of slightly excessive numbers was of no practical value whatsoever; nonetheless it was a problem which might illuminate the nature of numbers and therefore it was worthy of study. Such riddles intrigued the Pythagorean Brotherhood, and two and a half thousand years later, mathematicians are still unable to prove that no slightly excessive numbers exist.
Everything is Number
In addition to studying the relationships within numbers Pythagoras was also intrigued by the link between numbers and nature. He realised that natural phenomena are governed by laws, and that these laws could be described by mathematical equations. One of the first links he discovered was the fundamental relationship between the harmony of music and the harmony of numbers.
The most important instrument in early Hellenic music was the tetrachord or four-stringed lyre. Prior to Pythagoras, musicians appreciated that particular notes when sounded together created a pleasant effect, and tuned their lyres so that plucking two strings would generate such a harmony. However, the early musicians had no understanding of why particular notes were harmonious and had no objective system for tuning their instruments. Instead they tuned their lyres purely by ear until a state of harmony was established – a process which Plato called torturing the tuning pegs.
Iamblichus, the fourth-century scholar who wrote nine books about the Pythagorean sect, describes how Pythagoras came to discover the underlying principles of musical harmony:
Once he was engrossed in the thought of whether he could devise a mechanical aid for the sense of hearing which would prove both certain and ingenious. Such an aid would be similar to the compasses, rules and optical instruments designed for the sense of sight. Likewise the sense of touch had scales and the concepts of weights and measures. By some divine stroke of luck he happened to walk past the forge of a blacksmith and listened to the hammers pounding iron and producing a variegated harmony of reverberations between them, except for one combination of sounds.
According to Iamblichus, Pythagoras immediately ran into the forge to investigate the harmony of the hammers. He noticed that most of the hammers could be struck simultaneously to generate a harmonious sound, whereas any combination containing one particular hammer always generated an unpleasant noise. He analysed the hammers and realised that those which were harmonious with each other had a simple mathematical relationship – their masses were simple ratios or fractions of each other. That is to say that hammers half, two-thirds or three-quarters the weight of a particular hammer would all generate harmonious sounds. On the other hand, the hammer which was generating disharmony when struck along with any of the other hammers had a weight which bore no simple relationship to the other weights.
Pythagoras had discovered that simple numerical ratios were responsible for harmony in music. Scientists have cast some doubt on Iamblichus’ account of this story, but what is more certain is how Pythagoras applied his new theory of musical ratios to the lyre by examining the properties of a single string. Simply plucking the string generates a standard note or tone which is produced by the entire length of the vibrating string. By fixing the string at particular points along its length, it is possible to generate other vibrations and tones. Crucially, harmonious tones only occur at very specific points. For example, by fixing the string at a point exactly half-way along it, plucking generates a tone which is one octave higher and in harmony with the original tone. Similarly, by fixing the string at points which are exactly a third, a quarter or a fifth of the way along it, other harmonious notes are produced. However, by fixing the string at a point which is not a simple fraction along the length of the whole string, a tone is generated which is not in harmony with the other tones.
Pythagoras had uncovered for the first time the mathematical rule which governs a physical phenomenon and demonstrated that there was a fundamental relationship between mathematics and science. Ever since this discovery scientists have searched for the mathematical rules which appear to govern every single physical process and have found that numbers crop up in all manner of natural phenomena. For example, one particular number appears to guide the lengths of meandering rivers. Professor Hans-Henrik Stølum, an earth scientist at Cambridge University, has calculated the ratio between the actual length of rivers from source to mouth and their direct length as the crow flies. Although the ratio varies from river to river, the average value is slightly greater than 3, that is to say that the actual length is roughly three times greater than the direct distance. In fact the ratio is approximately 3.14, which is close to the value of the number π, the ratio between the circumference of a circle and its diameter.
The number π was originally derived from the geometry of circles and yet it reappears over and over again in a variety of scientific circumstances. In the case of the river ratio, the appearance of π is the result of a battle between order and chaos. Einstein was the first to suggest that rivers have a tendency towards an ever more loopy path because the slightest curve will lead to faster currents on the outer side, which will in turn result in more erosion and a sharper bend. The sharper the bend, the faster the currents on the outer edge, the more the erosion, the more the river will twist, and so on. However, there is a natural process which will curtail the chaos: increasing loopiness will result in rivers doubling back on themselves and effectively short-circuiting. The river will become straighter and the loop will be left to one side forming an ox-bow lake. The balance between these two opposing factors leads to an average ratio of π between the actual length and the direct distance between source and mouth. The ratio of π is most commonly found for rivers flowing across very gently sloping plains, such as those found in Brazil or the Siberian tundra.
Pythagoras realised that numbers were hidden in everything, from the harmonies of music to the orbits of planets, and this led him to proclaim that ‘Everything is Number’. By exploring the meaning of mathematics, Pythagoras was developing the language which would enable him and others to describe the nature of the universe. Henceforth each breakthrough in mathematics would give scientists the vocabulary they needed to better explain the phenomena around them. In fact developments in mathematics would inspire revolutions in science.
As well as discovering the law of gravity, Isaac Newton was a powerful mathematician. His greatest contribution to mathematics was his development of calculus, and in later years physicists would use the language of calculus to better describe the laws of gravity and to solve gravitational problems. Newton’s classical theory of gravity survived intact for centuries until it was superseded by Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which developed a more detailed and alternative explanation of gravity. Einstein’s own ideas were only possible because of new mathematical concepts which provided him with a more sophisticated language for his more complex scientific ideas. Today the interpretation of gravity is once again being influenced by breakthroughs in mathematics. The very latest quantum theories of gravity are tied to the development of mathematical strings, a theory in which the geometrical and topological properties of tubes seem to best explain the forces of nature.
Of all the links between numbers and nature studied by the Brotherhood, the most important was the relationship which bears their founder’s name. Pythagoras’ theorem provides us with an equation which is true of all right-angled triangles and which therefore also defines the right angle itself. In turn, the right angle defines the perpendicular, i.e. the relation of the vertical to the horizontal, and ultimately the relation between the three dimensions of our familiar universe. Mathematics, via the right angle, defines the very structure of the space in which we live.
Figure 1. All right-angled triangles obey Pythagoras’ theorem.
It is a profound realisation and yet the mathematics required to grasp Pythagoras’s theorem is relatively simple. To understand it, simply begin by measuring the length of the two short sides of a right-angled triangle (x and y), and then square each one (x
, y
). Then add the two squared numbers (x
+ y
) to give you a final number. If you work out this number for the triangle shown in Figure 1 (#), then the answer is 25.
You can now measure the longest side z, the so-called hypotenuse, and square this length. The remarkable result is that this number z
is identical to the one you just calculated, i.e. 5
= 25. That is to say,
In a right-angled triangle the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides.
Or in other words (or rather symbols):
This is clearly true for the triangle in Figure 1 (#), but what is remarkable is that Pythagoras’ theorem is true for every right-angled triangle you can possibly imagine. It is a universal law of mathematics, and you can rely on it whenever you come across any triangle with a right angle. Conversely if you have a triangle which obeys Pythagoras’ theorem, then you can be absolutely confident that it is a right-angled triangle.
At this point it is important to note that, although this theorem will forever be associated with Pythagoras, it was actually used by the Chinese and the Babylonians one thousand years before. However, these cultures did not know that the theorem was true for every right-angled triangle. It was certainly true for the triangles they tested, but they had no way of showing that it was true for all the right-angled triangles which they had not tested. The reason for Pythagoras’ claim to the theorem is that it was he who first demonstrated its universal truth.
But how did Pythagoras know that his theorem is true for every right-angled triangle? He could not hope to test the infinite variety of right-angled triangles, and yet he could still be one hundred per cent sure of the theorem’s absolute truth. The reason for his confidence lies in the concept of mathematical proof. The search for a mathematical proof is the search for a knowledge which is more absolute than the knowledge accumulated by any other discipline. The desire for ultimate truth via the method of proof is what has driven mathematicians for the last two and a half thousand years.
Absolute Proof
The story of Fermat’s Last Theorem revolves around the search for a missing proof. Mathematical proof is far more powerful and rigorous than the concept of proof we casually use in our everyday language, or even the concept of proof as understood by physicists or chemists. The difference between scientific and mathematical proof is both subtle and profound, and is crucial to understanding the work of every mathematician since Pythagoras.
The idea of a classic mathematical proof is to begin with a series of axioms, statements which can be assumed to be true or which are self-evidently true. Then by arguing logically, step by step, it is possible to arrive at a conclusion. If the axioms are correct and the logic is flawless, then the conclusion will be undeniable. This conclusion is the theorem.
Mathematical theorems rely on this logical process and once proven are true until the end of time. Mathematical proofs are absolute. To appreciate the value of such proofs they should be compared with their poor relation, the scientific proof. In science a hypothesis is put forward to explain a physical phenomenon. If observations of the phenomenon compare well with the hypothesis, this becomes evidence in favour of it. Furthermore, the hypothesis should not merely describe a known phenomenon, but predict the results of other phenomena. Experiments may be performed to test the predictive power of the hypothesis, and if it continues to be successful then this is even more evidence to back the hypothesis. Eventually the amount of evidence may be overwhelming and the hypothesis becomes accepted as a scientific theory.
However, the scientific theory can never be proved to the same absolute level of a mathematical theorem: it is merely considered highly likely based on the evidence available. So-called scientific proof relies on observation and perception, both of which are fallible and provide only approximations to the truth. As Bertrand Russell pointed out: ‘Although this may seem a paradox, all exact science is dominated by the idea of approximation.’ Even the most widely accepted scientific ‘proofs’ always have a small element of doubt in them. Sometimes this doubt diminishes, although it never disappears completely, while on other occasions the proof is ultimately shown to be wrong. This weakness in scientific proof leads to scientific revolutions in which one theory which was assumed to be correct is replaced with another theory, which may be merely a refinement of the original theory, or which may be a complete contradiction.
For example, the search for the fundamental particles of matter involved each generation of physicists overturning or, at the very least, refining the theory of their predecessors. The modern quest for the building blocks of the universe started at the beginning of the nineteenth century when a series of experiments led John Dalton to suggest that everything was composed of discrete atoms, and that atoms were fundamental. At the end of the century J. J. Thomson discovered the electron, the first known subatomic particle, and therefore the atom was no longer fundamental.
During the early years of the twentieth century, physicists developed a ‘complete’ picture of the atom – a nucleus consisting of protons and neutrons, orbited by electrons. Protons, neutrons and electrons were proudly held up as the complete ingredients for the universe. Then cosmic ray experiments revealed the existence of other fundamental particles – pions and muons. An even greater revolution came with the discovery in 1932 of antimatter – the existence of antiprotons, antineutrons, antielectrons, etc. By this time particle physicists could not be sure how many different particles existed, but at least they could be confident that these entities were indeed fundamental. That was until the 1960s when the concept of the quark was born. The proton itself is apparently built from fractionally charged quarks, as is the neutron and the pion. The moral of the story is that physicists are continually altering their picture of the universe, if not rubbing it out and starting all over again. In the next decade the very concept of a particle as a point-like object may even be replaced by the idea of particles as strings – the same strings which might best explain gravity. The theory is that strings a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a metre in length (so small that they appear point-like) can vibrate in different ways, and each vibration gives rise to a different particle. This is analogous to Pythagoras’ discovery that one string on a lyre can give rise to different notes depending on how it vibrates.
The science fiction writer and futurologist Arthur C. Clarke wrote that if an eminent professor states that something is undoubtedly true, then it is likely to be proved false the next day. Scientific proof is inevitably fickle and shoddy. On the other hand mathematical proof is absolute and devoid of doubt. Pythagoras died confident in the knowledge that his theorem, which was true in 500 BC, would remain true for eternity.
Science is operated according to the judicial system. A theory is assumed to be true if there is enough evidence to prove it ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’. On the other hand mathematics does not rely on evidence from fallible experimentation, but it is built on infallible logic. This is demonstrated by the problem of the ‘mutilated chessboard’, illustrated in Figure 2 (#).
Figure 2. The problem of the mutilated chessboard.
We have a chessboard with the two opposing corners removed, so that there are only 62 squares remaining. Now we take 31 dominoes shaped such that each domino covers exactly two squares. The question is: is it possible to arrange the 31 dominoes so that they cover all the 62 squares on the chessboard?
There are two approaches to the problem:
(1) The scientific approach
The scientist would try to solve the problem by experimenting, and after trying out a few dozen arrangements would discover that they all fail. Eventually the scientist believes that there is enough evidence to say that the board cannot be covered. However, the scientist can never be sure that this is truly the case because there might be some arrangement which has not been tried which might do the trick. There are millions of different arrangements and it is only possible to explore a small fraction of them. The conclusion that the task is impossible is a theory based on experiment, but the scientist will have to live with the prospect that one day the theory may be overturned.
(2) The mathematical approach
The mathematician tries to answer the question by developing a logical argument which will derive a conclusion which is undoubtedly correct and which will remain unchallenged forever. One such argument is the following:
• The corners which were removed from the chessboard were both white. Therefore there are now 32 black squares and only 30 white squares.
• Each domino covers two neighbouring squares, and neighbouring squares are always different in colour, i.e. one black and one white.
• Therefore, no matter how they are arranged, the first 30 dominoes laid on the board must cover 30 white squares and 30 black squares.
• Consequently, this will always leave you with one domino and two black squares remaining.
• But remember all dominoes cover two neighbouring squares, and neighbouring squares are opposite in colour. However, the two squares remaining are the same colour and so they cannot both be covered by the one remaining domino. Therefore, covering the board is impossible!
This proof shows that every possible arrangement of dominoes will fail to cover the mutilated chessboard. Similarly Pythagoras constructed a proof which shows that every possible right-angled triangle will obey his theorem. For Pythagoras the concept of mathematical proof was sacred, and it was proof that enabled the Brotherhood to discover so much. Most modern proofs are incredibly complicated and following the logic would be impossible for the layperson, but fortunately in the case of Pythagoras’ theorem the argument is relatively straightforward and relies on only senior school mathematics. The proof is outlined in Appendix 1 (#).
Pythagoras’ proof is irrefutable. It shows that his theorem holds true for every right-angled triangle in the universe. The discovery was so momentous that one hundred oxen were sacrificed as an act of gratitude to the gods. The discovery was a milestone in mathematics and one of the most important breakthroughs in the history of civilisation. Its significance was twofold. First, it developed the idea of proof. A proven mathematical result has a deeper truth than any other truth because it is the result of step-by-step logic. Although the philosopher Thales had already invented some primitive geometrical proofs, Pythagoras took the idea much further and was able to prove far more ingenious mathematical statements. The second consequence of Pythagoras’ theorem is that it ties the abstract mathematical method to something tangible. Pythagoras showed that the truth of mathematics could be applied to the scientific world and provide it with a logical foundation. Mathematics gives science a rigorous beginning and upon this infallible foundation scientists add inaccurate measurements and imperfect observations.
An Infinity of Triples
The Pythagorean Brotherhood invigorated mathematics with its zealous search for truth via proof. News of their success spread and yet the details of their discoveries remained a closely guarded secret. Many requested admission to the inner sanctum of knowledge, but only the most brilliant minds were accepted. One of those who was blackballed was a candidate by the name of Cylon. Cylon took exception to his humiliating rejection and twenty years later he took his revenge.
During the sixty-seventh Olympiad (510 BC) there was a revolt in the nearby city of Sybaris. Telys, the victorious leader of the revolt, began a barbaric campaign of persecution against the supporters of the former government, which drove many of them to seek sanctuary in Croton. Telys demanded that the traitors be returned to Sybaris to suffer their due punishment, but Milo and Pythagoras persuaded the citizens of Croton to stand up to the tyrant and protect the refugees. Telys was furious and immediately gathered an army of 300,000 men and marched on Croton, where Milo defended the city with 100,000 armed citizens. After seventy days of war Milo’s supreme generalship led him to victory and as an act of retribution he turned the course of the river Crathis upon Sybaris to flood and destroy the city.
Despite the end of the war, the city of Croton was still in turmoil because of arguments over what should be done with the spoils of war. Fearful that the lands would be given to the Pythagorean elite, the ordinary folk of Croton began to grumble. There had already been growing resentment among the masses because the secretive Brotherhood continued to withhold their discoveries, but nothing came of it until Cylon emerged as the voice of the people. Cylon preyed on the fear, paranoia and envy of the mob and led them on a mission to destroy the most brilliant school of mathematics the world had ever seen. Milo’s house and the adjoining school were surrounded, all the doors were locked and barred to prevent escape and then the burning began. Milo fought his way out of the inferno and fled, but Pythagoras, along with many of his disciples, was killed.
Mathematics had lost its first great hero, but the Pythagorean spirit lived on. The numbers and their truths were immortal. Pythagoras had demonstrated that more than any other discipline mathematics is a subject which is not subjective. His disciples did not need their master to decide on the validity of a particular theory. A theory’s truth was independent of opinion. Instead the construction of mathematical logic had become the arbiter of truth. This was the Pythagoreans’ greatest contribution to civilisation – a way of achieving truth which is beyond the fallibility of human judgement.
Following the death of their founder and the attack by Cylon, the Brotherhood left Croton for other cities in Magna Graecia, but the persecution continued and eventually many of them had to settle in foreign lands. This enforced migration encouraged the Pythagoreans to spread their mathematical gospel throughout the ancient world. Pythagoras’ disciples set up new schools and taught their students the method of logical proof. In addition to their proof of Pythagoras’ theorem, they also explained to the world the secret of finding so-called Pythagorean triples.
Figure 3. Finding whole number solutions to Pythagoras’ equation can be thought of in terms of finding two squares which can be added together to form a third square. For example, a square made of 9 tiles can be added to a square of 16 tiles, and rearranged to form a third square made of 25 tiles.
Pythagorean triples are combinations of three whole numbers which perfectly fit Pythagoras’ equation: x
+ y
= z
For example, Pythagoras’ equation holds true if x = 3, y = 4 and z = 5:
Another way to think of Pythagorean triples is in terms of rearranging squares. If one has a 3 × 3 square made of 9 tiles, and a 4 × 4 square made of 16 tiles, then all the tiles can be rearranged to form a 5 × 5 square made of 25 tiles, as shown in Figure 3 (#).
The Pythagoreans wanted to find other Pythagorean triples, other squares which could be added to form a third, larger square. Another Pythagorean triple is x = 5, y = 12 and z = 13:
A larger Pythagorean triple is x = 99, y = 4,900 and z = 4,901. Pythagorean triples become rarer as the numbers increase, and finding them becomes harder and harder. To discover as many triples as possible the Pythgoreans invented a methodical way of finding them, and in so doing they also demonstrated that there are an infinite number of Pythagorean triples.
From Pythagoras’ Theorem to Fermat’s Last Theorem
Pythagoras’ theorem and its infinity of triples was discussed in E.T. Bell’s The Last Problem, the library book which caught the attention of the young Andrew Wiles. Although the Brotherhood had achieved an almost complete understanding of Pythagorean triples, Wiles soon discovered that this apparently innocent equation, x
+ y
= z
, has a darker side – Bell’s book described the existence of a mathematical monster.
In Pythagoras’ equation the three numbers, x, y and z, are all squared (i.e. x
= x × x):
However, the book described a sister equation in which x, y and z are all cubed (i.e. x
= x × x × x). The so-called power of x in this equation is no longer 2, but rather 3:
Finding whole number solutions, i.e. Pythagorean triples, to the original equation was relatively easy, but changing the power from ‘2’ to ‘3’ (the square to a cube) and finding whole number solutions to the sister equation appears to be impossible. Generations of mathematicians scribbling on notepads have failed to find numbers which fit the equation perfectly.
Figure 4. Is it possible to add the building blocks from one cube to another cube, to form a third, larger cube? In this case a 6 × 6 × 6 cube added to an 8 × 8 × 8 cube does not have quite enough building blocks to form a 9 × 9 × 9 cube. There are 216 (6
) building blocks in the first cube, and 512 (8
) in the second. The total is 728 building blocks, which is 1 short of 9
.
With the original ‘squared’ equation, the challenge was to rearrange the tiles in two squares to form a third, larger square. The ‘cubed’ version of the challenge is to rearrange two cubes made of building blocks, to form a third, larger cube. Apparently, no matter what cubes are chosen to begin with, when they are combined the result is either a complete cube with some extra blocks left over, or an incomplete cube. The nearest that anyone has come to a perfect rearrangement is one in which there is one building block too many or too few. For example, if we begin with the cubes 6
(x
) and 8
(y
) and rearrange the building blocks, then we are only one short of making a complete 9 × 9 × 9 cube, as shown in Figure 4 (#).
Finding three numbers which fit the cubed equation perfectly seems to be impossible. That is to say, there appear to be no whole number solutions to the equation
Furthermore, if the power is changed from 3 (cubed) to any higher number n (i.e. 4, 5, 6, …), then finding a solution still seems to be impossible. There appear to be no whole number solutions to the more general equation
By merely changing the 2 in Pythagoras’ equation to any higher number, finding whole number solutions turns from being relatively simple to being mind-bogglingly difficult. In fact, the great seventeenth-century Frenchman Pierre de Fermat made the astonishing claim that the reason why nobody could find any solutions was that no solutions existed.
Fermat was one of the most brilliant and intriguing mathematicians in history. He could not have checked the infinity of numbers, but he was absolutely sure that no combination existed which would fit the equation perfectly because his claim was based on proof. Like Pythagoras, who did not have to check every triangle to demonstrate the validity of his theorem, Fermat did not have to check every number to show the validity of his theorem. Fermat’s Last Theorem, as it is known, stated that
has no whole number solutions for n greater than 2.
As Wiles read each chapter of Bell’s book, he learnt how Fermat had become fascinated by Pythagoras’ work and had eventually come to study the perverted form of Pythagoras’ equation. He then read how Fermat had claimed that even if all the mathematicians in the world spent eternity looking for a solution to the equation they would fail to find one. He must have eagerly turned the pages, relishing the thought of examining the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. However, the proof was not there. It was not anywhere. Bell ended the book by stating that the proof had been lost long ago. There was no hint of what it might have been, no clues as to the proof’s construction or derivation. Wiles found himself puzzled, infuriated and intrigued. He was in good company.
For over 300 years many of the greatest mathematicians had tried to rediscover Fermat’s lost proof and failed. As each generation failed, the next became even more frustrated and determined. In 1742, almost a century after Fermat’s death, the Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler asked his friend Clêrot to search Fermat’s house in case some vital scrap of paper still remained. No clues were ever found as to what Fermat’s proof might have been. In Chapter 2 (#u1c3f8df4-16FF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474) we shall find out more about the mysterious Pierre de Fermat and how his theorem came to be lost, but for the time being it is enough to know that Fermat’s Last Theorem, a problem that had captivated mathematicians for centuries, had captured the imagination of the young Andrew Wiles.
Sat in Milton Road Library was a ten-year-old boy staring at the most infamous problem in mathematics. Usually half the difficulty in a mathematics problem is understanding the question, but in this case it was simple – prove that x
+ y
= z
has no whole number solutions for n greater than 2. Andrew was not daunted by the knowledge that the most brilliant minds on the planet had failed to rediscover the proof. He immediately set to work using all his textbook techniques to try and recreate the proof. Perhaps he could find something that everyone else, except Fermat, had overlooked. He dreamed he could shock the world.
Thirty years later Andrew Wiles was ready. Standing in the auditorium of the Isaac Newton Institute, he scribbled on the board and then, struggling to contain his glee, stared at his audience. The lecture was reaching its climax and the audience knew it. One or two of them had smuggled cameras into the lecture room and flashes peppered his concluding remarks.
With the chalk in his hand he turned to the board for the last time. The final few lines of logic completed the proof. For the first time in over three centuries Fermat’s challenge had been met. A few more cameras flashed to capture the historic moment. Wiles wrote up the statement of Fermat’s Last Theorem, turned towards the audience, and said modestly: ‘I think I’ll stop here.’
Two hundred mathematicians clapped and cheered in celebration. Even those who had anticipated the result grinned in disbelief. After three decades Andrew Wiles believed he had achieved his dream, and after seven years of isolation he could reveal his secret calculation. However, while euphoria filled the Newton Institute tragedy was about to strike. As Wiles was enjoying the moment, he, along with everyone else in the room, was oblivious of the horrors to come.
2 The Riddler (#)
‘Do you know,’ the Devil confided, ‘not even the best mathematicians on other planets – all far ahead of yours – have solved it? Why, there’s a chap on Saturn – he looks something like a mushroom on stilts – who solves partial differential equations mentally; and even he’s given up.’
Arthur Porges, ‘The Devil and Simon Flagg’
Pierre de Fermat was born on 20 August 1601 in the town of Beaumont-de-Lomagne in south-west France. Fermat’s father, Dominique Fermat, was a wealthy leather merchant, and so Pierre was fortunate enough to enjoy a privileged education at the Franciscan monastery of Grandselve, followed by a stint at the University of Toulouse. There is no record of the young Fermat showing any particular brilliance in mathematics.
Pressure from his family steered Fermat towards a career in the civil service, and in 1631 he was appointed conseiller au Parlement de Toulouse, a councillor at the Chamber of Petitions. If locals wanted to petition the King on any matter they first had to convince Fermat or one of his associates of the importance of their request. The councillors provided the vital link between the province and Paris. As well as liaising between the locals and the monarch, the councillors made sure that royal decrees emanating from the capital were implemented back in the regions. Fermat was an efficient civil servant, who by all accounts carried out his duties in a considerate and merciful manner.
Fermat’s additional duties included service in the judiciary and he was senior enough to deal with the most severe cases. An account of his work is given by the English mathematician, Sir Kenelm Digby. Digby had requested to see Fermat, but in a letter to a mutual colleague, John Wallis, he reveals that the Frenchman had been occupied with pressing judicial matters, thus excluding the possibility of a meeting:
It is true that I had exactly hit the date of the displacement of the judges of Castres to Toulouse, where he [Fermat] is the Supreme Judge to the Sovereign Court of Parliament; and since then he has been occupied with capital cases of great importance, in which he has finished by imposing a sentence that has made a great stir; it concerned the condemnation of a priest, who had abused his functions, to be burned at the stake. This affair has just finished and the execution has followed.
Fermat corresponded regularly with Digby and Wallis. Later we will see that the letters were often less than friendly, but they provide vital insights into Fermat’s daily life, including his academic work.
Fermat rose rapidly within the ranks of the civil service and became a member of the social élite, entitling him to use de as part of his name. His promotion was not necessarily the result of ambition, but rather a matter of health. The plague was raging throughout Europe and those who survived were elevated to fill the places of those who died. Even Fermat suffered a serious bout of plague in 1652, and was so ill that his friend Bernard Medon announced his death to several colleagues. Soon after he corrected himself in a report to the Dutchman Nicholas Heinsius:
I informed you earlier of the death of Fermat. He is still alive, and we no longer fear for his health, even though we had counted him among the dead a short time ago. The plague no longer rages among us.
In addition to the health risks of seventeenth-century France, Fermat had to survive the political dangers. His appointment to the Parliament of Toulouse came just three years after Cardinal Richelieu was promoted to first minister of France. This was an era of plotting and intrigue, and everyone involved in the running of the state, even at local government level, had to take care not to become embroiled in the machinations of the Cardinal. Fermat adopted the strategy of performing duties efficiently without drawing attention to himself. He had no great political ambition, and did his best to avoid the rough and tumble of parliament. Instead he devoted all his spare energy to mathematics and, when not sentencing priests to be burnt at the stake, Fermat dedicated himself to his hobby. Fermat was a true amateur academic, a man whom E.T. Bell called the ‘Prince of Amateurs’. But so great were his talents that when Julian Coolidge wrote Mathematics of Great Amateurs, he excluded Fermat on the grounds that he was ‘so really great that he should count as a professional’.
At the start of the seventeenth century, mathematics was still recovering from the Dark Ages and was not a highly regarded subject. Similarly mathematicians were not treated with great respect and most of them had to fund their own studies. For example, Galileo was unable to study mathematics at the University of Pisa and was forced to seek private tuition. Indeed, the only institute in Europe to actively encourage mathematicians was Oxford University which had established the Savilian Chair of Geometry in 1619. It is true to say that most seventeenth-century mathematicians were amateurs, but Fermat was an extreme case. Living far from Paris he was isolated from the small community of mathematicians that did exist, which included such figures as Pascal, Gassendi, Roberval, Beaugrand and most notably Father Marin Mersenne.
Father Mersenne made only minor contributions to number theory and yet he played a role in seventeenth-century mathematics which was arguably more important than any of his more esteemed colleagues. After joining the order of Minims in 1611, Mersenne studied mathematics and then taught the subject to other monks and to nuns at the Minim convent at Nevers. Eight years later he moved to Paris to join the Minims de l’Annociade, close to the Place Royale, a natural gathering place for intellectuals. Inevitably Mersenne met the other mathematicians of Paris, but he was saddened by their reluctance to talk to him or to each other.
The secretive nature of the Parisian mathematicians was a tradition which had been passed down from the cossists of the sixteenth century. The cossists were experts in calculations of all kinds and were employed by merchants and businessmen to solve complex accounting problems. Their name derives from the Italian word cosa, meaning ‘thing’, because they used symbols to represent an unknown quantity, similar to the way mathematicians use x today. All professional problem-solvers of this era invented their own clever methods for performing calculations and would do their utmost to keep these methods secret in order to maintain their reputation as the only person capable of solving a particular problem. On one exceptional occasion Niccolò Tartaglia, who had found a method for quickly solving cubic equations, revealed his discovery to Girolamo Cardano and swore him to absolute secrecy. Ten years later Cardano broke his promise and published Tartaglia’s method in his Ars Magna, an act which Tartaglia would never forgive. He broke off all relations with Cardano and a bitter public dispute ensued, which only served to further encourage other mathematicians to guard their secrets. The secretive nature of mathematicians continued right up until the end of the nineteenth century, and as we shall see later there are even examples of secret geniuses working in the twentieth century.
When Father Mersenne arrived in Paris he was determined to fight against the ethos of secrecy and tried to encourage mathematicians to exchange their ideas and build upon each other’s work. The monk arranged regular meetings and his group later formed the core of the French Academy. When anyone refused to attend, Mersenne would pass on to the group whatever he could by revealing letters and papers – even if they had been sent to him in confidence. It was not ethical behaviour for a man of the cloth, but he justified it on the grounds that the exchange of information would benefit mathematics and mankind. These acts of indiscretion naturally caused bitter arguments between the well-meaning monk and the taciturn prima donnas, and eventually destroyed Mersenne’s relationship with Descartes which had lasted since the two men had studied together at the Jesuit College of La Flèche. Mersenne had revealed philosophical writings by Descartes which were liable to offend the Church, but to his credit he did defend Descartes against theological attacks, as in fact he had done earlier in the case of Galileo. In an era dominated by religion and magic Mersenne stood up for rational thought.
Mersenne travelled throughout France and further afield, spreading news of the latest discoveries. In his travels he would make a point of meeting up with Pierre de Fermat and, indeed, seems to have been Fermat’s only regular contact with other mathematicians. Mersenne’s influence on this Prince of Amateurs must have been second only to the Arithmetica, a mathematical treatise handed down from the ancient Greeks which was Fermat’s constant companion. Even when he was unable to travel Mersenne would maintain his relationship with Fermat and others by writing prolifically. After Mersenne’s death his room was found stacked with letters written by seventy-eight different correspondents.
Despite the encouragement of Father Mersenne, Fermat steadfastly refused to reveal his proofs. Publication and recognition meant nothing to him and he was satisfied with the simple pleasure of being able to create new theorems undisturbed. However, the shy and retiring genius did have a mischievous streak, which, when combined with his secrecy, meant that when he did sometimes communicate with other mathematicians it was only to tease them. He would write letters stating his most recent theorem without providing the accompanying proof. Then he would challenge his contemporaries to find the proof. The fact that he would never reveal his own proofs caused a great deal of frustration. Rene Descartes called Fermat a ‘braggart’ and the Englishman John Wallis referred to him as ‘That damned Frenchman’. Unfortunately for the English, Fermat took particular pleasure in toying with his cousins across the Channel.
As well as having the satisfaction of annoying his colleagues, Fermat’s habit of stating a problem but hiding its solution did have more practical motivations. First, it meant that he did not have to waste time fully fleshing out his methods; instead he could rapidly proceed to his next conquest. Furthermore, he did not have to suffer jealous nit-picking. Once published, proofs would be examined and argued over by everyone and anyone who knew anything about the subject. When Blaise Pascal pressed him to publish some of his work, the recluse replied: ‘Whatever of my work is judged worthy of publication, I do not want my name to appear there.’ Fermat was the secretive genius who sacrificed fame in order not to be distracted by petty questions from his critics.
This exchange of letters with Pascal, the only occasion when Fermat discussed ideas with anyone but Mersenne, concerned the creation of an entirely new branch of mathematics – probability theory. The mathematical hermit was introduced to the subject by Pascal, and so, despite his desire for isolation, he felt obliged to maintain a dialogue. Together Fermat and Pascal would discover the first proofs and cast-iron certainties in probability theory, a subject which is inherently uncertain. Pascal’s interest in the subject had been sparked by a professional Parisian gambler, Antoine Gombaud, the Chevalier de Méré, who had posed a problem which concerned a game of chance called points. The game involves winning points on the roll of a dice, and whichever player is the first to earn a certain number of points is the winner and takes the prize money.
Gombaud had been involved in a game of points with a fellow-gambler when they were forced to abandon the game half-way through, owing to a pressing engagement. The problem then arose as to what to do with the prize money. The simple solution would have been to have given all the money to the competitor with the most points, but Gombaud asked Pascal if there was a fairer way to divide the money. Pascal was asked to calculate the probability of each player winning had the game continued and assuming that both players would have had an equal chance of winning subsequent points. The prize money could then be split according to these calculated probabilities.
Prior to the seventeenth century the laws of probability were defined by the intuition and experience of gamblers, but Pascal entered into an exchange of letters with Fermat with the aim of discovering the mathematical rules which more accurately describe the laws of chance. Three centuries later Bertrand Russell would comment on this apparent oxymoron: ‘How dare we speak of the laws of chance? Is not chance the antithesis of all law?’
The Frenchmen analysed Gombaud’s question and soon realised that it was a relatively trivial problem which could be solved by rigorously defining all the potential outcomes of the game and assigning an individual probability to each one. Both Pascal and Fermat were capable of independently solving Gombaud’s problem, but their collaboration speeded up the discovery of a solution and led them to a deeper exploration of other more subtle and sophisticated questions related to probability.
Probability problems are sometimes controversial because the mathematical answer, the true answer, is often contrary to what intuition might suggest. This failure of intuition is perhaps surprising because ‘survival of the fittest’ ought to provide a strong evolutionary pressure in favour of a brain naturally capable of analysing questions of probability. You can imagine our ancestors stalking a young deer, and weighing up whether or not to attack. What is the risk that a stag is nearby ready to defend its offspring and injure its assailant? On the other hand what is the chance that a better opportunity for a meal might arise if this one is judged too risky? A talent for analysing probability should be part of our genetic makeup and yet often our intuition misleads us.
One of the most counterintuitive probability problems concerns the likelihood of sharing birthdays. Imagine a football pitch with 23 people on it, the players and the referee. What is the probability that any two of those 23 people share the same birthday? With 23 people and 365 birthdays to chose from, it would seem highly unlikely that anybody would share the same birthday. If asked to put a figure on it most people would guess a probability of perhaps 10% at most. In fact, the actual answer is just over 50% – that is to say, on the balance of probability, it is more likely than not that two people on the pitch will share the same birthday.
The reason for this high probability is that what matters more than the number of people is the number of ways people can be paired. When we look for a shared birthday, we need to look at pairs of people not individuals. Whereas there are only 23 people on the pitch, there are 253 pairs of people. For example, the first person can be paired with any of the other 22 people giving 22 pairings to start with. Then, the second person can be paired with any of the remaining 21 people (we have already counted the second person paired with the first person so the number of possible pairings is reduced by one), giving an additional 21 pairings. Then, the third person can be paired with any of the remaining 20 people, giving an additional 20 pairings, and so on until we reach a total of 253 pairs.
The fact that the probability of a shared birthday within a group of 23 people is more than 50% seems intuitively wrong, and yet it is mathematically undeniable. Strange probabilities such as this are exactly what bookmakers and gamblers rely on in order to exploit the unwary. The next time you are at a party with more than 23 people you might want to make a wager that two people in the room will share a birthday. Please note that with a group of 23 people the probability is only slightly more than 50%, but the probability rapidly rises as the group increases in size. Hence, with a party of 30 people it is certainly worth betting that two of them will share the same birthday.
Fermat and Pascal founded the essential rules which govern all games of chance and which can be used by gamblers to define perfect playing and betting strategies. Furthermore, these laws of probability have found applications in a whole series of situations, ranging from speculating on the stock market to estimating the probability of a nuclear accident. Pascal was even convinced that he could use his theories to justify a belief in God. He stated that ‘the excitement that a gambler feels when making a bet is equal to the amount he might win multiplied by the probability of winning it’. He then argued that the possible prize of eternal happiness has an infinite value and that the probability of entering heaven by leading a virtuous life, no matter how small, is certainly finite. Therefore, according to Pascal’s definition, religion was a game of infinite excitement and one worth playing, because multiplying an infinite prize by a finite probability results in infinity.
As well as sharing the parentage of probability theory, Fermat was deeply involved in the founding of another area of mathematics, calculus. Calculus is the ability to calculate the rate of change, known as the derivative, of one quantity with respect to another. For example, the rate of change of distance with respect to time is better known simply as velocity. For mathematicians the quantities tend to be abstract and intangible but the consequences of Fermat’s work were to revolutionise science. Fermat’s mathematics enabled scientists to better understand the concept of velocity and its relation to other fundamental quantities such as acceleration – the rate of change of velocity with respect to time.
Economics is a subject heavily influenced by calculus. Inflation is the rate of change of price, known as the derivative of price, and furthermore economists are often interested in the rate of change of inflation, known as the second derivative of price. These terms are frequently used by politicians and the mathematician Hugo Rossi once observed the following: ‘In the fall of 1972 President Nixon announced that the rate of increase of inflation was decreasing. This was the first time a sitting president used a third derivative to advance his case for re-election.’
For centuries Isaac Newton was thought to have discovered calculus independently and without any knowledge of Fermat’s work, but in 1934 Louis Trenchard Moore discovered a note which set the record straight and gave Fermat the credit he deserves. Newton wrote that he developed his calculus based on ‘Monsieur Fermat’s method of drawing tangents’. Ever since the seventeenth century calculus has been used to describe Newton’s law of gravity and his laws of mechanics, which depend on distance, velocity and acceleration.
The discovery of calculus and probability theory would have been more than enough to earn Fermat a place in the mathematicians’ hall of fame, but his greatest achievement was in yet another branch of mathematics. While calculus has since been used to send rockets to the moon, and while probability theory has been used for risk assessment by insurance companies, Fermat’s greatest love was for a subject which is largely useless – the theory of numbers. Fermat was driven by an obsession to understand the properties of and the relationships between numbers. This is the purest and most ancient form of mathematics and Fermat was building on a body of knowledge that had been handed down to him from Pythagoras.
The Evolution of Number Theory
After Pythagoras’ death the concept of mathematical proof rapidly spread across the civilised world, and two centuries after his School was burnt to the ground the hub of mathematical study had moved from Croton to the city of Alexandria. In 332 BC, having conquered Greece, Asia Minor and Egypt, Alexander the Great decided that he would build a capital city that would be the most magnificent in the world. Alexandria was indeed a spectacular metropolis but not immediately a centre of learning. It was only when Alexander died and his half-brother Ptolemy I ascended the throne of Egypt that Alexandria became home to the world’s first-ever university. Mathematicians and other intellectuals flocked to Ptolemy’s city of culture, and although they were certainly drawn by the reputation of the university, the main attraction was the Alexandrian Library.
The Library was the idea of Demetrius Phalaerus, an unpopular orator who had been forced to flee Athens, and who eventually found sanctuary in Alexandria. He persuaded Ptolemy to gather together all the great books, assuring him that the great minds would follow. Once the tomes of Egypt and Greece had been installed, agents scoured Europe and Asia Minor in search of further volumes of knowledge. Even tourists to Alexandria could not escape the voracious appetite of the Library. Upon entering the city, their books were confiscated and taken to the scribes. The books were copied so that while the original was donated to the Library, a duplicate could graciously be given to the original owner. This meticulous replication service for ancient travellers gives today’s historians some hope that a copy of a great lost text will one day turn up in an attic somewhere in the world. In 1906 J.L. Heiberg discovered in Constantinople just such a manuscript, The Method, which contained some of Archimedes’ original writings.
Ptolemy’s dream of building a treasure house of knowledge lived on after his death, and by the time a few more Ptolemys had ascended the throne the Library contained over 600,000 books. Mathematicians could learn everything in the known world by studying at Alexandria, and there to teach them were the most famous academics. The first head of the mathematics department was none other than Euclid.
Euclid was born in about 330 BC. Like Pythagoras, Euclid believed in the search for mathematical truth for its own sake and did not look for applications in his work. One story tells of a student who questioned him about the use of the mathematics he was learning. Upon completing the lesson, Euclid turned to his slave and said, ‘Give the boy a penny since he desires to profit from all that he learns.’ The student was then expelled.
Euclid devoted much of his life to writing the Elements, the most successful textbook in history. Until this century it was also the second best-selling book in the world after the Bible. The Elements consists of thirteen books, some of which are devoted to Euclid’s own work, and the remainder being a compilation of all the mathematical knowledge of the age, including two volumes devoted entirely to the works of the Pythagorean Brotherhood. In the centuries since Pythagoras, mathematicians had invented a variety of logical techniques which could be applied in different circumstances, and Euclid skilfully employed them all in the Elements. In particular Euclid exploited a logical weapon known as reductio ad absurdum, or proof by contradiction. The approach revolves around the perverse idea of trying to prove that a theorem is true by first assuming that the theorem is false. The mathematician then explores the logical consequences of the theorem being false. At some point along the chain of logic there is a contradiction (e.g. 2 + 2 = 5). Mathematics abhors a contradiction and therefore the original theorem cannot be false, i.e. it must be true.
The English mathematician G.H. Hardy encapsulated the spirit of proof by contradiction in his book A Mathematician’s Apology: ‘Reductio ad absurdum, which Euclid loved so much, is one of a mathematician’s finest weapons. It is a far finer gambit than any chess play: a chess player may offer the sacrifice of a pawn or even a piece, but a mathematician offers the game.’
One of Euclid’s most famous proofs by contradiction established the existence of so-called irrational numbers. It is suspected that irrational numbers were originally discovered by the Pythagorean Brotherhood centuries earlier, but the concept was so abhorrent to Pythagoras that he denied their existence.
When Pythagoras claimed that the universe is governed by numbers he meant whole numbers and ratios of whole numbers (fractions) together known as rational numbers. An irrational number is a number that is neither a whole number nor a fraction, and this is what made it so horrific to Pythagoras. In fact, irrational numbers are so strange that they cannot be written down as decimals, even recurring decimals. A recurring decimal such as 0.111111 … is in fact a fairly straightforward number, and is equivalent to the fraction
⁄
. The fact that the ‘1’ repeats itself forever means that the decimal has a very simple and regular pattern. This regularity, despite the fact that it continues to infinity, means that the decimal can be rewritten as a fraction. However, if you attempt to express an irrational number as a decimal you end up with a number which continues forever with no regular or consistent pattern.
The concept of an irrational number was a tremendous breakthrough. Mathematicians were looking beyond the whole numbers and fractions around them, and discovering, or perhaps inventing, new ones. The nineteenth-century mathematician Leopold Kronecker said, ‘God made the integers; all the rest is the work of man.’
The most famous irrational number is π. In schools it is sometimes approximated by 3
⁄
or 3.14; however, the true value of π is nearer 3.14159265358979323846, but even this is only an approximation. In fact, π can never be written down exactly because the decimal places go on forever without any pattern. A beautiful feature of this random pattern is that it can be computed using an equation which is supremely regular:
By calculating the first few terms, you can obtain a very rough value for π, but by calculating more and more terms an increasingly accurate value is achieved. Although knowing π to 39 decimal places is sufficient to calculate the circumference of the universe accurate to the radius of a hydrogen atom, this has not prevented computer scientists from calculating π to as many decimal places as possible. The current record is held by Yasumasa Kanada of the University of Tokyo who calculated π to six billion decimal places in 1996. Recently rumours have suggested that the Russian Chudnovsky brothers in New York have calculated π to eight billion decimal places and that they are aiming to reach a trillion decimal places. However, even if Kanada or the Chudnovsky brothers carried on calculating until their computers sapped all the energy in the universe, they would still not have found the exact value of π. It is easy to appreciate why Pythagoras conspired to hide the existence of these mathematical beasts.
The value of π to over 1500 decimal places
When Euclid dared to confront the issue of irrationality in the tenth volume of the Elements the goal was to prove that there could be a number which could never be written as a fraction. Instead of trying to prove that π is irrational, he examined the square root of two, √2 – the number which when multiplied by itself is equal to two. In order to prove that √2 could not be written as a fraction Euclid used reductio ad absurdum and began by assuming that it could be written as a fraction. He then demonstrated that this hypothetical fraction could be simplified. Simplification of a fraction means, for example, that the fraction
⁄
can be simplified to
⁄
by dividing top and bottom by 2. In turn
⁄
can be simplified to
⁄
, which cannot be simplified any further and therefore the fraction is then said to be in its simplest form. However, Euclid showed that his hypothetical fraction, which was supposed to represent √2, could be simplified not just once, but over and over again an infinite number of times without ever reducing to its simplest form. This is absurd because all fractions must eventually have a simplest form, and therefore the hypothetical fraction cannot exist. Therefore √2 cannot be written as a fraction and is irrational. An outline of Euclid’s proof is given in Appendix 2 (#).
By using proof by contradiction Euclid was able to prove the existence of irrational numbers. For the first time numbers had taken on a new and more abstract quality. Until this point in history all numbers could be expressed as whole numbers or fractions, but Euclid’s irrational numbers defied representation in the traditional manner. There is no other way to describe the number equal to the square root of two other than by expressing it as √2, because it cannot be written as a fraction and any attempt to write it as a decimal could only ever be an approximation, e.g. 1.414213562373 …
For Pythagoras, the beauty of mathematics was the idea that rational numbers (whole numbers and fractions) could explain all natural phenomena. This guiding philosophy blinded Pythagoras to the existence of irrational numbers and may even have led to the execution of one of his pupils. One story claims that a young student by the name of Hippasus was idly toying with the number √2, attempting to find the equivalent fraction. Eventually he came to realise that no such fraction existed, i.e. that √2 is an irrational number. Hippasus must have been overjoyed by his discovery, but his master was not. Pythagoras had defined the universe in terms of rational numbers, and the existence of irrational numbers brought his ideal into question. The consequence of Hippasus’ insight should have been a period of discussion and contemplation during which Pythagoras ought to have come to terms with this new source of numbers. However, Pythagoras was unwilling to accept that he was wrong, but at the same time he was unable to destroy Hippasus’ argument by the power of logic. To his eternal shame he sentenced Hippasus to death by drowning.
The father of logic and the mathematical method had resorted to force rather than admit he was wrong. Pythagoras’ denial of irrational numbers is his most disgraceful act and perhaps the greatest tragedy of Greek mathematics. It was only after his death that irrationals could be safely resurrected.
Although Euclid clearly had an interest in the theory of numbers, it was not his greatest contribution to mathematics. Euclid’s true passion was geometry, and of the thirteen volumes that make up the Elements, books I to VI concentrate on plane (two-dimensional) geometry and books XI to XIII deal with solid (three-dimensional) geometry. It is such a complete body of knowledge that the contents of the Elements would form the geometry syllabus in schools and universities for the next two thousand years.
The mathematician who compiled the equivalent text for number theory was Diophantus of Alexandria, the last champion of the Greek mathematical tradition. Although Diophantus’ achievements in number theory are well documented in his books, virtually nothing else is known about this formidable mathematician. His place of birth is unknown and his arrival in Alexandria could have been any time within a five-century window. In his writings Diophantus quotes Hypsicles and therefore he must have lived after 150 BC; on the other hand his own work is quoted by Theon of Alexandria and therefore he must have lived before AD 364. A date around AD 250 is generally accepted as being a sensible estimate. Appropriately for a problem-solver, the one detail of Diophantus’ life that has survived is in the form of a riddle said to have been carved on his tomb:
God granted him to be a boy for the sixth part of his life, and adding a twelfth part to this, He clothed his cheeks with down; He lit him the light of wedlock after a seventh part, and five years after his marriage He granted him a son. Alas! late-born wretched child; after attaining the measure of half his father’s full life, chill Fate took him. After consoling his grief by this science of numbers for four years he ended his life.
The challenge is to calculate Diophantus’ life span. The answer can be found in Appendix 3 (#).
This riddle is an example of the sort of problem that Diophantus relished. His speciality was to tackle questions which required whole number solutions, and today such questions are referred to as Diophantine problems. He spent his career in Alexandria collecting well-understood problems and inventing new ones, and then compiled them all into a major treatise entitled Arithmetica. Of the thirteen books which made up the Arithmetica, only six would survive the turmoils of the Dark Ages and go on to inspire the Renaissance mathematicians, including Pierre de Fermat. The remaining seven books would be lost during a series of tragic events which would send mathematics back to the age of the Babylonians.
During the centuries between Euclid and Diophantus, Alexandria remained the intellectual capital of the civilised world, but throughout this period the city was continually under threat from foreign armies. The first major attack occurred in 47 BC, when Julius Caesar attempted to overthrow Cleopatra by setting fire to the Alexandrian fleet. The Library, which was located near the harbour, also caught alight, and hundreds of thousands of books were destroyed. Fortunately for mathematics Cleopatra appreciated the importance of knowledge and was determined to restore the Library to its former glory. Mark Antony realised that the way to an intellectual’s heart is via her library, and so marched to the city of Pergamum. This city had already initiated a library which it hoped would provide it with the best collection in the world, but instead Mark Antony transplanted the entire stock to Egypt, restoring the supremacy of Alexandria.
For the next four centuries the Library continued to accumulate books until in AD 389 it received the first of two fatal blows, both the result of religious bigotry. The Christian Emperor Theodosius ordered Theophilus, Bishop of Alexandria, to destroy all pagan monuments. Unfortunately when Cleopatra rebuilt and restocked the Library, she decided to house it in the Temple of Serapis, and so the Library became caught up in the destruction of icons and altars. The ‘pagan’ scholars attempted to save six centuries-worth of knowledge, but before they could do anything they were butchered by the Christian mob. The descent into the Dark Ages had begun.
A few precious copies of the most vital books survived the Christian onslaught and scholars continued to visit Alexandria in search of knowledge. Then in 642 a Moslem attack succeeded where the Christians had failed. When asked what should be done with the Library, the victorious Caliph Omar commanded that those books that were contrary to the Koran should be destroyed, and furthermore those books that conformed to the Koran were superfluous and they too must be destroyed. The manuscripts were used to stoke the furnaces which heated the public baths and Greek mathematics went up in smoke. It is not surprising that most of Diophantus’ work was destroyed; in fact it is a miracle that six volumes of the Arithmetica managed to survive the tragedy of Alexandria.
For the next thousand years mathematics in the West was in the doldrums, and only a handful of luminaries in India and Arabia kept the subject alive. They copied the formulae described in the surviving manuscripts of Greece and then began to reinvent for themselves many of the theorems that had been lost. They also added new elements to mathematics, including the number zero.
In modern mathematics zero performs two functions. First, it allows us to distinguish between numbers like 52 and 502. In a system where the position of a number denotes its value, a symbol is needed to confirm an empty position. For instance, 52 represents 5 times ten plus 2 times one, whereas 502 represents 5 times a hundred plus 0 times ten plus 2 times one, and the zero is crucial for removing any ambiguity. Even the Babylonians in the third millennium BC appreciated the use of zero to avoid confusion, and the Greeks adopted their idea, using a circular symbol similar to the one we use today. However, zero has a more subtle and deeper significance which was only fully appreciated several centuries later by the mathematicians of India. The Hindus recognised that zero had an independent existence beyond the mere spacing role among the other numbers – zero was a number in its own right. It represented a quantity of nothing. For the first time the abstract concept of nothingness had been given a tangible symbolic representation.
This may seem a trivial step forward to the modern reader, but the deeper meaning of the zero symbol had been ignored by all the ancient Greek philosophers, including Aristotle. He had argued that the number zero should be outlawed because it disrupted the consistency of the other numbers – dividing any ordinary number by zero led to an incomprehensible result. By the sixth century the Indian mathematicians no longer brushed this problem under the rug, and the seventh-century scholar Brahmagupta was sophisticated enough to use division by zero as a definition for infinity.
While Europe had abandoned the noble search for truth, India and Arabia were consolidating the knowledge which had been smuggled out of the embers of Alexandria and were reinterpreting it in a new and more eloquent language. As well as adding zero to the mathematical vocabulary, they replaced the primitive Greek symbols and cumbersome Roman numerals with the counting system which has now been universally adopted. Once again, this might seem like an absurdly humble step forward, but try multiplying CLV by DCI and you will appreciate the significance of the breakthrough. The equivalent task of multiplying 155 by 601 is a good deal simpler. The growth of any discipline depends on the ability to communicate and develop ideas, and this in turn relies on a language which is sufficiently detailed and flexible. The ideas of Pythagoras and Euclid were no less elegant for their awkward expression, but translated into the symbols of Arabia they would blossom and give fruit to newer and richer concepts.
In the tenth century the French scholar Gerbert of Aurillac learnt the new counting system from the Moors of Spain and through his teaching positions at churches and schools throughout Europe he was able to introduce the new system to the West. In 999 he was elected Pope Sylvester II, an appointment which allowed him to further encourage the use of Indo-Arabic numerals. Although the efficiency of the system revolutionised accounting and was rapidly adopted by merchants, it did little to inspire a revival in European mathematics.
The vital turning point for Western mathematics occurred in 1453 when the Turks ransacked Constantinople. During the intervening years the manuscripts which had survived the desecration of Alexandria had congregated in Constantinople, but once again they were threatened with destruction. Byzantine scholars fled westward with whatever texts they could preserve. Having survived the onslaught of Caesar, Bishop Theophilus, Caliph Omar and now the Turks, a few precious volumes of the Arithmetica made their way back to Europe. Diophantus was destined for the desk of Pierre de Fermat.
Birth of a Riddle
Fermat’s judicial responsibilities occupied a great deal of his time, but what little leisure he had was devoted entirely to mathematics. This was partly because judges in seventeenth-century France were discouraged from socialising on the grounds that friends and acquaintances might one day be called before the court. Fraternising with the locals would only lead to favouritism. Isolated from the rest of Toulouse’s high society, Fermat could concentrate on his hobby.
There is no record of Fermat ever being inspired by a mathematical tutor; instead it was a copy of the Arithmetica which became his mentor. The Arithmetica sought to describe the theory of numbers, as it was in Diophantus’ time, via a series of problems and solutions. In effect Diophantus was presenting Fermat with one thousand years worth of mathematical understanding. In one book Fermat could find the entire knowledge of numbers as constructed by the likes of Pythagoras and Euclid. The theory of numbers had stood still ever since the barbaric burning of Alexandria, but now Fermat was ready to resume study of the most fundamental of mathematical disciplines.
The Arithmetica which inspired Fermat was a Latin translation made by Claude Gaspar Bachet de Méziriac, reputedly the most learned man in all of France. As well as being a brilliant linguist, poet and classics scholar, Bachet had a passion for mathematical puzzles. His first publication was a compilation of puzzles entitled Problemes plaisans et délectables qui se font par les nombres, which included river-crossing problems, a liquid-pouring problem and several think-of-a-number tricks. One of the questions posed was a problem about weights:
What is the least number of weights that can be used on a set of scales to weigh any whole number of kilograms from 1 to 40?
Bachet had a cunning solution which shows that it is possible to achieve this task with only four weights. His solution is given in Appendix 4 (#).
Although he was merely a mathematical dilettante, Bachet’s interest in puzzles was enough for him to realise that Diophantus’ list of problems were on a higher plane and worthy of deeper study. He set himself the task of translating Diophantus’ opus and publishing it so that the techniques of the Greeks could be rekindled. It is important to realise that vast quantities of ancient mathematical knowledge had been completely forgotten. Higher mathematics was not taught in even the greatest European universities and it is only thanks to the efforts of scholars such as Bachet that so much was revived so rapidly. In 1621 when Bachet published the Latin version of the Arithmetica
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