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Global finds

Jack Chuter

Co-host of the Episode Party podcast, author of Storm Static Sleep: A Pathway Through Post-rock, editor at ATTN:Magazine.

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piqer: Jack Chuter
Saturday, 05 January 2019

Solving A 350-Year Mathematical Mystery

The main takeaway here is that there’s basis for a blockbuster movie within the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. When extracted from its mathematical context, this essentially becomes a story of buried treasure: a pursuit of riches based on only the tentative promise that those riches exist, bedecked with dramatic epiphanies, sub-plots … even a shock twist that rattles the approach toward denouement. And yet, with the story bound to the complex language of number theory, is it possible to convey all of this excitement without confounding your everyday math amateur?

Filmmaker and podcaster Brady Haran takes up the challenge as part of his new show, Numberphile: a podcast accompanying his video series of the same name, where experts are interviewed about all manner of mathematical curiosity. This episode is based on a theory posed by 17th Century mathematician Pierre de Fermat, who wrote in the margin of an ancient text that he had proof for a particular mathematical statement and that there wasn’t space in the margin to explain further. Fermat never elaborated on his claim, and so began the exhaustive 350-year search for the proof.

The episode’s guest is the president of the American Mathematical Society, Ken Ribet, whose work during the 1980s and 1990s was crucial to paving the way for the eventual discovery of the proof. Haran does well to ensure that the story’s inherent drama isn’t mired by technical complexity, and there’s even a cinematic air to Ribet’s retelling of the proof’s discovery and announcement in 1995 (and the wave of journalistic interest that followed). Listeners will need at least a passing interest in maths to keep pace here, although given how deftly the podcast extracts the theatre of mathematical discovery from within the seemingly impenetrable abstraction of the subject itself, this makes for a surprisingly digestible listen.

Solving A 350-Year Mathematical Mystery
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