Book Review: Fermat’s Last Theorem: The Story Of A Riddle…

Fermat's Last Theorem by Simon Singh - Header

At the same time as I was given Simon Singh’s The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets, I was also presented with his book on Fermat’s Last Theorem (The Story Of A Riddle That Confounded The World’s Greatest Minds For 358 Years). Fermat’s Last Theorem is the idea that xⁿ + yⁿ ≠ zⁿ when n > 2 or in other words, that there is only a solution to Pythagoras’ theorem, any power greater than 2 and the formula that would give you the length of the hypotenuse of a right angle triangle falls totally apart.

This may sound like a really boring topic for a book. And in one respect you’d be right, however, it’s a problem that has plagued the mathematical work for over 350 years. It’s an itch that refused to be scratched. In maths an idea isn’t true until proof categorically provided. It has to be universal to be accepted. Pierre de Fermat, who created the theorem and gave the world the problem, simply stated that he had the proof it was true but not enough space to explain it in the margin of his book. In other words, he claimed it as fact but refused to divulge how he knew.

Pierre de Fermat - Fermat's Last Theorem by Simon Singh

That riddle, that tease of proof by Fermat, is the heart of the book and what elevates it from being a stuffy mathematical work of non-fiction into an enjoyable but occasionally mind boggling historical tale. The book is essentially the timeline from the very early days of mathematics, long before Fermat dreamed up his theorem, or modern mathematicians would unravel the riddle.

The book can, therefore, be split into two parts. The historical timeline about how mathematics developed and how one idea would build on previous ideas to open up other areas. These elements are interesting but complicated and however much Singh has tried to lighten the load, and steer clear of complex equations, too often he just had no choice by to drop in the algebra. This meant that often I’d end up blindly confused by jargon and equations that when glossed over as fact, made very little sense. I just had to accept what I was reading without understanding why it was so. I also find the whole idea borrowing various elements to create of new theories hard to comprehend. In my head I can’t quite understand how you can take something and just apply it, claiming it works and thus makes your point. But that is how modern maths develop. In my mind the world of maths is black and white and yet, those who practice it seem to make the rules up as they go along. Singh fails to explain how this can be and so as the time line progresses, I kept feeling uneasy as discoveries were made more by implausible thinking and sudden leaps than seemingly robust and acceptable logic.

Mathematical Watch - Fermat's Last Theorem by Simon Singh

The book then moves to focus on the characters, no matter where in the timeline, and at that point it truly does become interesting. It’s fair to say that as time passes the characters driving mathematical discovery and knowledge become less flamboyant and more academic but, even so, they are constantly interesting. Even though they are all sharing in a passion for numbers, I fell in love with the psychology Singh describes behind what drives each and every mathematician. To me that was more interesting that their actual achievements. I think in part the fact I found the personality more engaging than the work is down to the fact it’s easier to connect to the people than to the bamboozling numbers.

A lot of non-fiction writing falls into a trap of being far too linear, presenting nothing but one fact after another until it has made it’s point. Thinking Fast And Slow by Daniel Kahneman is a perfect example, but Fermat’s Last Theorem does follow this trend. It has a timeline it sticks to, but that timeline has an arc. It feels like facts attributed to a greater a story and as a result, never became overly heavy. I really did enjoy reading it even if I did get a little lost be the finer details along the way.

Andrew Wiles - Fermat's Last Theorem by Simon Singh

The book ultimately builds to Andrew Wiles, his childhood dream and his 7 year pursuit of solving Fermat’s riddle. This is where the book almost comes alive. Up to that point, as mentioned, the book is an interesting but linear timeline. When Wiles et al. arrive Singh switches tack. The book transforms into a revolving narrative around a central focal point and the interaction between the characters takes the lead. Sadly, the complexity of the maths at this point goes through the roof and it becomes a mental balancing act in trying to keep everything clear in your head. I did, just, and by the end I was emotionally connected to the characters in a way I really didn’t expect. There challenges, and problems, left me nervous yet happy, sad yet anxious all at once. It’s an impressive feat for a book that should in theory be stuffy, heavy and full of numbers.

I was completely surprised by not only the story of Fermat’s Last Theorem, but also by how much I enjoyed it even if the finer points passed me by. I must point out that I have a basic mathematical mind and while I don’t understand linear equations, modular forms or proof by contradiction (basically anything using an array Greek symbols) I do, however, like numbers. I am also fascinated by the psychology of people and what drives them forward on seemingly thankless pursuits. These combined, mean I probably found a way to connect to this book more than a lot of others would. It will never be a mainstream read, but if you have an interest in maths and like puzzles it’s an enjoyable read, that really will surprise you. It’s much, much better and more engrossing that the BBC Horizon special it grew out of.

Posted on by 5WC in Book First Edition

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