Sunday, October 5, 2014

Fermat's last theorem - II

Computers had been used to check Fermat's Last  Theorem (Fermat's Last Theorem states that xn + yn =  zn    has no whole number solutions for x, y and z when n > 2) for the first trillion numbers and it had proved to be true. For most of us this would have been enough but mathematicians are a finicky lot. There still remained infinite numbers to be checked so the brute force of a computer could never be used to prove the theorem. Simon Singh relates a story in Fermat's Last Theorem to illustrate mathematicians'penchant for exactness:
An astronomer, a physicist and a mathematician (it is said) were holidaying in Scotland. Glancing from a train window, they observed a black sheep in the middle of a field. 'How interesting,' observed the astronomer, 'all Scottish sheep are black!' To which the physicist responded, 'No, no! Some Scottish sheep are black!' The mathematician gazed heavenward in supplication, and then intoned, 'In Scotland there exists at least one field, containing at least one sheep, at least one side of which is black.'
Enter Andrew Wiles. As a 10 year old he saw the theorem in a library book and was fascinated by it. (You would have thought that 10 year olds had other things to do but there it is.) That fascination became an obsession for the next 30 years before he finally cracked it. For the last 7 years, he shut himself off from the rest of the world to focus solely on the problem. Nobody in the world knew what he was doing. This was highly unusual in the field  of mathematics where people frequently checked new ideas with each other.

Wiles' proof involved deadly beasts like elliptic equations, modular forms, L-functions, Taniyama-Shimura conjecture etc. I know you want to know more about these things but since I know only their names and nothing else, I must respectfully avoid throwing any light on them. Browning said that one's reach should be beyond one's grasp or what is heaven for? I am sure he meant well but I have the unfortunate tendency of steering well clear of things that are way beyond my reach. What to do, I am like that only (sic). A thousand apologies!

But I know that you will not let me live in peace till I give you some idea of how he went about his quest so here is my honest effort. Elliptic equations and modular forms are two widely separated areas of mathematics that didn't seem to have any obvious connection with each other like say, probability and calculus. Then the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture was proposed out of blue stating that thees two forms were actually two different manifestations of the same underlying property. Wherever it was checked, it proved to be true but it remained a conjecture. It faced the same problem that Fermat had: how to check for infinite possibilities?

It was then shown that if Taniyama-Shimura was right then Fermat was right i.e. either both were right or both were wrong. So Wiles decided to try to prove Taniyama-Shimura. If he could do that then Fermat was right by default. During the final stages of the proof he began to wonder if he was on the right right track. He decided to confide in another mathematician, Nick Katz. They decided they would design a lecture course for graduate students which Katz would also attend and they would check the calculations. Simon Singh writes:
'So Andrew announced this lecture course called "Calculations on Elliptic Curves",' recalls Katz with with a sly smile, 'which is a completely innocuous title -it could mean anything. He didn't mention Fermat, he didn't mention Taniyama-Shimura, he just started by diving right into doing technical calculations. There was no way in the world that anyone could have guessed what it was really about. It was done in such a way that unless you knew what this was for,then the calculations would just seem incredibly technical and tedious. And when you don't know what the mathematics is for, it's impossible to follow it. It's pretty hard to follow it even when you do know what it's for. Anyway, one by one the graduate students just drifted away and after a few weeks I was the only person left in the audience.'
After some more time and a few more steps (sounds simple, doesn't it?) Wiles was ready with the proof. He decided to announce it at the Isaac Newton Institute in Cambridge during a workshop called 'L-functions and Arithmetic' where he was slated to give 3 lectures called 'Modular Forms, Elliptic Curves and Galois Representations' (there are people who go to such conferences and attend such lectures) which was later called 'The Lecture of the Century'.  There were rumours circulating that some big result was going to be presented but Wiles didn't let on.

After the first 2 lectures the audience was still not sure whether he would actually come up with a big result. Finally towards end of the 3rd lecture he read out the proof, wrote up Fermat's Last theorem and said, "I think I'll stop here." And then the audience burst into applause - he had solved a 350 year old problem. E-mails were flying and soon newspapers, TV crews and science reporters descended upon the institute wanting to interview the 'greatest mathematician of the century'. He had become a celebrity. Simon Singh writes:
This was the first time that mathematics had hit the headlines since Yoichi Miyaoka announced his so-called proof in 1988: the only difference this time was that there was twice as much coverage and nobody expressed any doubt over the calculation. Overnight Wiles became the most famous , in fact the only famous, mathematician in the world, and People magazine even listed him among 'The 25 most intriguing people of the year' along with Princess Diana and Oprah Winfrey. The ultimate accolade came from an international clothing chain who asked the mild-mannered genius to endorse their new range of menswear.

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