Nils Roeller on Tue, 10 Feb 1998 22:04:33 +0100 (MET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> New member of the community - Simon Singh on Fermat (Review)

New member of the community - Simon Singh on Fermat

Mathematicians will exchange their ideas among each other more than other
scientists, because keeping their ideas in secret does not pay off. There
is no concurrence in selling their ideas to the industry because the
market is simply not interested in pure math ideas. Simon Singh informs
about this in his book >Fermat's Last Theorem<. This is the background 
for the story of two strange characters who were an exception from common 

One is Pierre de Fermat - a french judge living in the 17th century. He
 could spent a lot of time with math, because of his profession that didn't
 allow social engagements. Pierre de Fermat teased others  like Descartes or
 Mersenne by informing them about theorems feigning that he could proof
 without explaining the others how the proof could be done.

After his death a theorem remained without being proven. A german
 industrial captain escaped from suicide because in the night of his planned
 death he started to clear thoughts about Fermat and number theoretical
 questions and by clearing math-functions he forgot to kill himself. This
 Mr. Wolfskehl donated a high price for the proof of the theorem.

It was proved in 1993 by Andrew Willis. In the proof he invested seven
 years. In this time he did not talk to others about his strategies of
 proofing, because he was afraid that another could steal him his ideas. In
 the book the story of the theorem is told lively enriched with anecdotes,
 ranging from the Pythagorian school, female math before Christ and duels in
 the twilight near Paris. The author - a journalist at BBC - mentions that
 Willis had at a certain point to start communication, because he saw that
 so he could avoid errors. Errors were found when a group of mathematicians
 tried to check the proof. It took Willis more than a year to clear problems
 found by the checkers and he could do this only in teamwork with Richard
Ta ylor. Nevertheless Singh pays big honour to Willis isolated research,
and it remains to the reader to decide what is better: to concentrate and
to bring science in solitude further on or to remain in the society of
others. In his conclusion Singh asks if Willis proof could be the last

Now computing allows a brute force approach to certain mathematical questions
 and could cause a decay of math. The difference between man-made proofs and
 computer-based is that man create concepts in the proofs, computers not,
 says Singh. Although the book is intriguing and helps to connect
 math-problems with mental images, math-problems will remain after the
 reading abstract signs that the non-math reader cannot use as concepts. The
 reader has to study more math to give signs like the Taniyama-Shimura-conje
cture or the Kolywagin-Flach-method a conceptual life. Deleuze and Guattari
 'kidnapped-masked" Riemanns concepts to talk about polit-aethics, may be
 after the proof of Fermat a new piracy of concepts is possible.
 Nevertheless Singhs book is a helpful and readable history of math.

Simon Singh: Fermat's Last Theorem. London: Fourth Estate, 1997
German: Fermats letzter Satz. M=FCnchen: Hanser, 1998.

Nils Roller
Accademy of Media Arts
Peter-Welter-Platz 2
50676 Cologne

0049 - 221 - 20189-  226
fax : 17

#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime" in the msg body
#  URL:  contact: