back 21stC home page

Last theorem, first page

If X, Y, and Z are positive whole numbers, then Xn + Yn =
Zn has solutions only if n  2.

If the average person thinks math is dry, why did the proof of Fermat's Last Theorem become front page news? Because it contained all the elements of a classic drama.

First, the story possesses a romantic history. In 1637, the brilliant French mathematician-jurist, Pierre de Fermat, wrote in the margin of a book that he had a proof for this equation but he didn't have enough room there to show it. This disarmingly simple equation has defied mathematicians ever since.

Then there's familiarity. So hard to prove, the theorem nevertheless is easy enough to explain to any 12-year-old. Centuries of students--including many of today's reporters--would at least hear about Fermat, alongside that Pythagorean Theorem lesson.

Next, a quirky protagonist. Shy Princeton number theorist Andrew Wiles worked tenaciously in virtual secrecy for seven years. Then he journeyed to the Isaac Newton Institute for mathematics research in Cambridge, England, to present three days of lectures starting June 21, 1993.

Now the cliffhanger. Princeton's mathematics and public relations departments suspected, but couldn't be sure, that Wiles was going to offer a proof of Fermat's equation or something more obscure. The British Institute's busy then-deputy director, Professor Peter Goddard, alerted by conference attendees that Wiles may be leading toward proving Fermat's Last Theorem during his last talk, made a point to attend the lecture on Wednesday, June 23. Wiles, leaving everybody hanging until virtually the end of his lecture, wrote down Fermat's Last Theorem as one byproduct of his arcane studies and stopped for the 11 o'clock coffee break. The audience went into stunned, and possibly reverent, silence.

The plot quickens. Goddard left to write a quick release. He wasn't fast enough. "By the time I was drafting the press release it was already round the world by electronic mail," said Goddard. Some attendees had spread the news to their colleagues from their laptops but even they weren't the first. Ian Katz of the British newspaper The Guardian scooped them all.

"It was serendipity," Katz explained. "A mathematician who recognized it was a story happened to call [Tuesday] into The Guardian, and I happened towards the phone and I happened to have studied math in school and also recognized it was a good story. I just got lucky."

First Katz sold a skeptical editor on a small news story for Tuesday, the day before, headlined "Crunch Day Today: Will He or Won't He?" Four hundred words about a bunch of the world's greatest mathematicians crammed into a lecture room wondering if this man is going to claim the Holy Grail of mathematics. "I don't know whether that was a good judgment or not. It could have given it away, alerted other people to it but for some reason no one did jump onto it."

Wednesday, while Goddard was completing and faxing his release to the press (the e-mail never reached them), Katz and his inside man, Andrew Granville--an award-winning math popularizer from the University of Georgia--were already collaborating on a 2,500-word feature. It appeared shortly afterward as the cover story to the morning Guardian's daily magazine section. It was another 24 hours before any other media outlets latched onto the achievement.

Many papers got the story from the Institute and Princeton fax blizzards, including The New York Times, which then moved it further down the journalistic food chain.

"We all thought it was truly fascinating," said Times science reporter Gina Kolata, "maybe one of the most interesting stories to come around. It was prominently displayed twice on Page 1, twice in big stories in `Science Times,' and then in a couple of smaller stories. [It was] everything that makes science writing interesting and different."

Finally, intrigue kept the story going beyond that first week. Was the proof sound or not? No. "The moment there were cracks in it, the [other mathematicians] were absolutely delighted," chuckled Katz. Wiles retreated to his attic until October 1994 and removed the flaw.

Columbia mathematics professor Bob Friedman commented that the premature announcement of the proof didn't really spoil the value of Wiles' work. "This happens a lot in mathematics. Mathematics is extremely hard and complicated; when they write down proofs they don't necessarily write down every detail because it would be impossibly long to follow.

"This was a special case because it was such a major result and also picked up in the popular press. Normally, the process doesn't get picked up by the media in any science. You read something in `Science Times,' and the follow-up and checking and so on--that's something you don't see. Nothing in mathematics ever gets picked up in the popular press, so people don't see the process that goes on there."

"The drama of backbiting [is something] which everybody can understand, whether it is in mathematics or literary theory," Katz concluded. "If you forget it was a mathematical problem, it had the ingredients of a good drama and that's what kept it running almost a year and a half."

-- Larry Krumenaker

21stC home
page 21stC is. . . special features next metanews item