October 01, 2013

The Back Page

Pierre de Fermat was a seventeenth century French lawyer who dabbled in mathematics. I’m not sure if he was a good lawyer, but it is clear that he was a capable mathematician. In 1637, he posited the following simple theorem. If an integer n is greater than 2, then the equation an + bn = cn has no solutions in non-zero integers a, b, and c. For those of you who remember your junior high algebra, you’ll recognize the Pythagorean Theorem, a2 + b2 = c2 as an example of Fermat’s theorem. For n=2, it works. But for any other values of n greater than two, it does not. For example, a3 + b3 ≠ c3. Fermat claimed to have proved his theorem, but there is no record that he actually pulled it off. How hard could this little theorem be to prove? It turns out, it was really hard. Fermat’s theorem became famous in the math world, garnering its own name: Fermat’s Last Theorem, or FLT for short

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