The Epic Quest to Solve the World’s Greatest Mathematical Problem
Author: Simon Singh
Hard Cover, 315 pages
Publisher: Walker Publishing Company
In Fermat’s Enigma, Simon Singh offers a compelling trek through the last 2500 years of mathematical development, always focusing on developments that would impact a mathematical conundrum – a proof to Fermat’s Last Theorem. This is a delightful book, and I think even the mathematically challenged will find the tale fun and exciting. While I think Simon Singh’s The Code Book far outstrips this one in material, quality and challenge for the reader, this book is well worth the read.
The book is aesthetically pleasing, having a wonderful font, important when text is intermingled with numbers and variables. Illustrations litter the pages, providing diagrams and representations of key concepts as well as the faces of major players in the story. Where math is required it clearly stands apart and is handled in a way that complements without weighing down the story. Beyond that, it is a quick read.
While a good portion of the story covers a wide span in history, much of the story is a limited biography of Andrew Wiles, the mathematician responsible for the final ingenuity that proved Fermat’s Last Theorem. Simon also highlights the secrecy of the work of Wiles, similar to that of Fermat’s own work – with Fermat coming out as the more devious of the two, in my opinion. But the story clearly shows that the solution to Fermat’s challenge rests not on the work of one man, but many notable men and women throughout history who devoted years to this problem. However, as with any retelling of historical events, Singh offers a subjective view of events that is somewhat arguable, and sometimes even derails the story a bit.
I particularly enjoyed reading about the development of mathematics among the Greeks, and the mathematical developments of the 1800’s. Though the former does not speak to Fermat’s Last Theorem, it provides the backdrop to it in the Pythagorean Theorem. And the latter provides an interesting look into the advances in both math and science that would shape the modern world. While Fermat’s Last Theorem itself is not an important mathematical principal, its proof has been the catalyst for the integration of disparate areas of mathematics, as well as an impetus for developing new means of calculation and logic.
I give this book ★★★☆☆.