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“I have had my results for a long time, but I do not yet know how to arrive at them”*…

 

Fermat

Andrew Wiles gave a series of lectures cryptically titled “Modular Forms, Elliptic Curves, and Galois Representations” at a mathematics conference in Cambridge, England, in June 0f 1993. His argument was long and technical. Finally, 20 minutes into the third talk, he came to the end. Then, to punctuate the result, he added:

=> FLT

“Implies Fermat’s Last Theorem.” The most famous unverified conjecture in the history of mathematics. First proposed by the 17th-century French jurist and spare-time mathematician Pierre de Fermat, it had remained unproven for more than 350 years. Wiles, a professor at Princeton University, had worked on the problem, alone and in secret in the attic of his home, for seven years. Now he was unveiling his proof.

His announcement electrified his audience—and the world. The story appeared the next day on the front page of The New York Times. Gap, the clothing retailer, asked him to model a new line of jeans, though he demurred. People Weekly named him one of “The 25 Most Intriguing People of the Year,” along with Princess Diana, Michael Jackson, and Bill Clinton. Barbara Walters’ producers reached out to him for an interview, to which Wiles responded, “Who’s Barbara Walters?”

But the celebration didn’t last. Once a proof is proposed, it must be checked and verified before it is accepted as valid. When Wiles submitted his 200-page proof to the prestigious journal Inventiones Mathematicae, its editor divvied up the manuscript among six reviewers. One of them was Nick Katz, a fellow Princeton mathematician.

For two months, Katz and a French colleague, Luc Illusie, scrutinized every logical step in Katz’s section of the proof. From time to time, they would come across a line of reasoning they couldn’t follow. Katz would email Wiles, who would provide a fix. But in late August, Wiles offered an explanation that didn’t satisfy the two reviewers. And when Wiles took a closer look, he saw that Katz had found a crack in the mathematical scaffolding. At first, a repair seemed straightforward. But as Wiles picked at the crack, pieces of the structure began falling away…

How mistakes– first Fermat’s, then Wiles’– reinvigorated a field, then led to fundamental insight: “How Math’s Most Famous Proof Nearly Broke.”

* Karl Friedrich Gauss

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As we ponder proof, we might we might spare a thought for Josiah Wedgwood; he died on this date in 1795. An English potter and businessman (he founded the Wedgwood company), he is credited, via his technique of “division of labor,” with the industrialization of the manufacture of pottery– and via his example, much of British (and thus American) manufacturing.

Wedgwood was a member of the Lunar Society, the Royal Society, and was an ardent abolitionist.  His daughter, Susannah, was the mother of Charles Darwin.

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