“Proof:” Fermat, Wiles, & Auburn

By Barry Honold

David Auburn, in deciding how much math to include in Proof, had to strike a delicate balance: though math is an integral part of the story, it is not a “math play.” However, he did try “to get in as much kind of math lore as possible” One central theme is that of the lone genius. Catherine, the lone genius in Proof, has many real-life counterparts in math and science. However, none may be more fitting than Princeton University’s Andrew Wiles.

In 1993, Wiles flew to a conference in England. There was a steady drip of rumor regarding what he had been secretly working on. This, writes Amir Aczel, took seven years and kept Wiles “a virtual prisoner in his own attic.” He was allotted an unusual three hours of lecture time. When he arrived, he kept to himself and discussed nothing. This uncharacteristic secrecy from a colleague sparked curiosity, and attendance to his lectures soared.

As he spoke, it became obvious what problem he was about to solve. For over 300 years, it had gone unsolved by the best and the brightest in math. History was made with the utterance of two simple sentences: “And this proves Fermat’s Last Theorem. I think I’ll stop here.” The lecture hall exploded in a standing ovation. Wiles had done it. The cameras snapped and the global press was soon in contact.

Calvin Clawson writes that Pierre de Fermat, after whom Fermat’s Last Theorem was named, may be “the greatest mathematician of the seventeenth century.” Only after his son posthumously published his work did he receive the acclaim he so rightly deserved. Fermat was a lawyer by education, who spent his career performing nominal legal duties that allowed him to fervently pursue his hobby: math.

If Fermat the amateur is judged on both quality and sheer volume of his work, he outshines many professional mathematicians. What he became famous for was a margin note. After his posthumous publication, a scribble was discovered in the margin of a Fermat manuscript. Per Aczel, it stated that “ has no whole number solution if (n) is greater than 2.”

Fermat wrote that he had a proof for this formula, but “the margin is not large enough to contain it.” The equation went on to bedevil mathematicians for over 300 years. In the play, Hal says that Catherine’s proof regards “a mathematical theorem about prime numbers, something mathematicians have been trying to prove since…there were mathematicians. Most people thought it couldn’t be done.” That was most certainly the consensus in the math community about Fermat’s Last Theorem for three centuries. Until Wiles.

Richard Hornsby writes that Proof is about “the obsessive, fascinating, all-consuming process of doing mathematics” and that Auburn is “second to none in depicting all three mathematicians’ enthusiasm for their work.” The play was never meant to be based on the events of 1993 – 1995. But the mathematicians all share Wiles’ enthusiasm and obsession. He described proving FLT (its shortened name) as akin to “entering a dark mansion. After some scientific, trial-and-error fumbling about, you learn the location of the furniture. Then you locate that room’s light switch. Then, it’s on to the next room to repeat the process.”

 Catherine and Wiles both built upon centuries of work for their achievements. The completion of their work would have been impossible if not for their predecessors. According to Hal, Catherine’s proof was very “hip,” and utilized a “lot of newer techniques” that were developed after her father’s time. Wiles’ final proof relied heavily upon post-WWII advances in math. Wiles, in essence, merely completed the process. Both lone geniuses merely completed a process started long before they were even born. They were the final, elegant piece of the mathematical puzzle.

Published in: on January 20, 2010 at 5:52 pm  Comments (1)  
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