The History of Mathematics
Mathematics After the Middle Ages
Was Fermat’s last theorem finally solved?
Just before the end of the 19th century, German industrialist and amateur mathematician Paul Wolfskehl, on the brink of suicide, began to explore a book on Fermat’s last theorem. Enchanted with the numbers, he forgot about dying and instead believed that mathematics had saved him. To repay such a debt, he left 100,000 marks to the Göttingen Academy of Science as a prize to anyone who could publish the complete proof of Fermat’s last theorem. Announced in 1906 after Wolfskehl’s death, thousands of incorrect proofs were turned in, but no true proof was offered.
But people kept trying—and failing. Fermat’s last theorem was finally solved in 1994 by English mathematician Andrew John Wiles (1953-). Wiles was offered the Wolfskehl prize in 1997. By that time, the original $2 million had been affected by not only hyperinflation but also the devaluation of the mark, reducing its value to $50,000 (in 1997 dollars). But for Wiles, it didn’t matter; his proving the last theorem had been a childhood dream.
Although it has so far stood up to mathematical scrutiny, it is interesting to note that some mathematicians do not believe Wiles uncovered the true proof of Fermat’s last theorem. Instead, because many of the mathematical techniques used by Wiles were developed within the last decades (some even by Wiles himself), Wiles’s proof— although a masterpiece of mathematics—could not possibly be the same as Fermat’s. Still other mathematicians wonder about Fermat’s words, too, in claiming that he had found a proof. Was it really a proven or flawed proof he was talking about? Or was he such a genius that he took the proof he was able to see, in his time, to his grave? Like so many historical mathematical mysteries, we may never know.