Sir Andrew John Wiles. 11 April 1953 –. British and American mathematician, Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Fellow of the Royal Society of London. Prover of Fermat’s Theorem.
Life and Work:
1. A seemingly simple conjecture that the equation xn+yn=zn at n > 2 has no nonzero solutions, however, bears the famous name of Fermat’s Last Theorem. A court official from Toulouse wrote it down in a hurry in the margin of Diophantus’ Arithmetica. The margin was too narrow to contain the proof. For 350 odd years, the best minds of the planet have been trying to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem. And, finally, the great puzzle was solved – by Andrew John Wiles, Head of the Department for Mathematics at Princeton University.
2. A son of a chaplain at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, Andrew Wiles grew up and went to school in this university town.
3. The passion for mathematics took hold of Andrew from a young age. He liked solving problems both in school and at home but by his own account the best problem he ever found, he found in his local public library. A ten-year-old boy skipped over mathematics books and found a book dedicated to Fermat’s Last Theorem. “Here was a problem, that I, a ten-year-old, could understand and I knew from that moment that I would never let it go. I had to solve it.”
4. Andrew Wiles kept the word he had given himself. In early adolescence, he tried to solve the problem because he believed that Fermat was as knowledgeable in mathematics as a teenager in the 20th century. After admission to the University of Oxford, Wiles realized that many researchers tried to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem in the 18th and 19th centuries and started studying these methods.
5. Even when the mathematician put aside solving this problem, Fermat’s Last Theorem did not let him go. He thought about it at the University of Oxford where he received his bachelor’s degree and at the University of Cambridge where he received a doctoral degree and embarked upon his academic career. It was his must-have companion on a trip across the ocean when Wiles took up a position of associate professor at Harvard University and a position of professor at Princeton University.
6. “The problem with working on Fermat was that you could spend years getting nowhere,” Wiles says. “It’s fine to work on any problem, so long as it generates interesting mathematics along the way — even if you don’t solve it at the end of the day. The definition of a good mathematical problem is the mathematics it generates rather than the problem itself.”
7. But Wiles nevertheless found it! In the August evening of 1986, the mathematician had an iced tea at his friend’s place. In a conversation, his friend mentioned that professor of mathematics Ken Ribet established a link between the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture and Fermat’s Last Theorem. “I was electrified,” Wiles says. “I knew that moment the course of my life was changing because this meant that to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem all I had to do was to prove the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture. It meant that my childhood dream was now a respectable thing to work on. I just knew that I could never let that go.”
8. Solving this problem took 7 years. In 1993, the Head of the Department for Mathematics at Princeton University published a 130-page proof and gave the publication to his wife as a birthday present. But it contained a grave mistake which Wiles corrected and the final version eventually made it to the Annals of Mathematics in 1995.
9. Malicious gossip has it that Wiles’s proof is no good as there was no such mathematical apparatus during Fermat’s lifetime. Wiles admits it but he does not believe that Fermat actually proved his theorem: “I think he fooled himself into thinking he had a proof. But what has made this problem special for amateurs is that there’s a tiny possibility that there does exist an elegant 17th-century proof,” the scientist says.
10. Speculations of critics do not keep the world from singing and dancing around in honor of the triumphant. We have to understand “Sing and Dance Around” quite literally because in 2000 Joshua Rosenblum produced his musical Fermat’s Last Tango. The main characters are Fermat and Wiles and also X, Y and Z.
11. That same year, the merits of the great mathematician were celebrated by the Queen of the United Kingdom. She knighted him, so it was sir Andrew Wiles who received the prestigious Abel Prize, a Nobel Prize for mathematicians. Unfortunately, he did not receive the Fields Medal, because it is awarded to mathematicians under the age of 40 but Wiles turned 42 in 1995.
12. There should be little amazement that Wiles presented his work to his wife. The mathematician told his wife about his passion for Fermat’s Last Theorem during their honeymoon. Two of Wiles’s three daughters were born during those seven years he dedicated to search for the theorem proof. The scientist dedicated his publication in the Annals of Mathematics to Nada, Claire, Kate, and Olivia Wiles, i.e., his wife and their three daughters.
13. Wiles was long embarrassed to speak in public outside the classroom. He declined invitations to speak on a TV screen but he was convinced otherwise. The winning argument was that he can inspire a new generation of mathematicians and show people the strength and beauty of mathematics.