Book Review – Fermat’s Enigma by Simon Singh

Fermat Enigma
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“I have discovered a truly marvelous demonstration of this proposition which this margin is too narrow to contain.” Pierre de Fermat (1637 A.C.)

And so began the epic quest to solve a mathematical riddle. Famously referred to as Fermat’s Last Theorem. And in Simon Singh’s book, Fermat’s Enigma, we get to glimpse this exciting journey closely.

The somewhat innocuous statement by Fermat, kept the mathematicians around the globe hacking away at a possible solution. But none was forthcoming for the next 350 years. All attempts to solve were in futile.

Simon Singh’s Femat’s Engima, shares with us Fermat’s love for number theory. In 1637, Fermat put forward a conjecture that

xn + yn = zn, where n represents 3, 4, 5, . . .

had no whole number solutions

On the face of it, the equation seems quite innocent. But it turned out to be very hard problem to prove. Mathematicians around the globe tried all possible methods but got no where.

Fermat’s Enigma, begins with the famous Greek’s Pythagoras theorem. Greeks learned and improved upon ancient mathematics that they acquired through learnings from ancient people. The Babylonians, Egyptians, South Asia (present day Pakistan where Alexander and Greeks once ruled) and other cultures.

Simon Singh does an excellent job of telling the story of the evolution of mathematics in relation to Pythagoras theorem till it reaches the desk of Fermat.

Fermat loved to solve and put forth challenges to his mathematically minded friends. And when he came across the above equation, he wrote the now infamous lines that we quoted above. However, no one was able to find any trace of his proof that he boasts about. So, for the next 350 years, mathematicians tried to rebuild the proof from scratch.

In the process new mathematics was created and new conjectures were proposed. One such conjecture was called Taniyama-Shimura conjecture. Which in itself was ground breaking and very difficult to prove.

Andrew Wiles

Andrew Wiles

But the problem was not insurmountable for one man. Andrew Wiles. The British Mathematician who spent seven arduous years trying to find a solution and then another year, trying to fix the holes in his solution. He studied every single method available to mathematicians disposal. And tried every possible technique, even the failed ones to understand the problem better. All in complete secrecy. Wiles hardly shared his ideas or techniques with anyone, so no one knew what was he up to. In the eyes of mathematical scientific community, he had became a complete hermit. But eventually, he emerged from his self exile in 1993 to present his proof to the world.

Singh not only tells us the tale of Wiles and his single minded focus on solving the puzzle but also of the stories of all mathematicians who played any role in helping resolve some part of the theorem.

The book is written with non-mathematicians in mind so that anyone in the world can read and understand. Singh has a natural flare of telling a story. A good story. And here he is able to do just that for an otherwise, tediously boring subject.

The book can be downloaded from Amazon here.

This Book Review section is part of our monthly series whereby we find interesting and fascinating books that we love to share with our readers. Keep checking this section for other exciting recommendations.

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