From Obscurity to Fame: The Man Behind the Proof

Andrew Wiles. Image: Denise Applewhite, Princeton University Office of Communications.

In class, we have talked about the importance of context. We cannot simply look at the mathematics of an ancient document to understand what its purpose is. We must also look into the time period, the background, the situation, the author and the many other facts of the culture to be able to understand the true importance of the document presented. This is easily understood when talking about ancient documents, but often seems to be lost when talking about current proofs. That’s why I decided to look into who Andrew Wiles really is.

Andrew Wiles was born on April 11, 1953 in Cambridge, England. His father was Maurice Frank Wiles, a Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford. When Andrew was born, his father was also Chaplain at Ridley Hall, Cambridge. A Regius Professor (because I didn’t know either) is a very prestigious level of professorship given within British universities specifically by a British monarch. They can be appointed in various fields, but must go through a rigid interview process with both the university and the national government. Andrew Wiles’ mother was Patricia Wiles. I tried to find more information on her, but couldn’t find any specifics. I also couldn’t find any information on whether he had siblings or not.

Andrew grew up with a deep love of Mathematics. In an interview with Nova he said, “I loved doing problems in school. I’d take them home and make up new ones of my own.” Talk about an ambitious kid. At the age of 10, Andrew found a book that would anchor the next 40 years of his life. He was one day wandering through the math books at the library and happened upon a book that explained Fermat’s last theorem. Of this experience he says, “This problem had been unsolved by mathematicians for 300 years. It looked so simple, and yet all the great mathematicians in history couldn’t solve it. Here was a problem, that I, a 10 year old, could understand, and I knew from that moment that I would never let it go. I had to solve it.” During his teens and college, he tried many different ways to solve this problem but to no avail.

When Andrew became a researcher, he put his dream of solving Fermat’s Last Theorem on the shelf and began to focus on other things. Andrew got his bachelor’s degree in (of course) mathematics in 1974 from Merton College, Oxford. He went on to get his PHD in 1980 from Clare College, Cambridge. He then taught at the Institute for Advanced Study in New Jersey, Princeton, the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques and the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. From 1988 to 1990, Andrew taught at Oxford and then went to Princeton.

It’s just before Andrew went to Oxford that things began to get interesting. In 1986, Andrew heard of the link between the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture and Fermat’s Last Theorem. He says, “I knew that moment that the course of my life was changing because this meant that to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem all I had to do was to prove the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture. It meant that my childhood dream was now a respectable thing to work on. I just knew that I could never let that go.” At this point, Andrew kept himself in isolation. He told no one else of his work and day after day continued to try and prove the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture.

During this time, he married Nada Canaan. And even with her, he told her nothing of his work with Fermat until they were on their honeymoon. She had heard of Fermat’s last theorem, but had no idea of its importance, especially for Andrew. I can imagine that would have been an interesting conversation at that time.

Finally, in 1993, he found the crucial breakthrough. A single line caught his eye, and he knew that it was the key for his proof. Though unknown to him at the time, his proof did contain an error. It took another year of close examination to correct that error and then finally, it was complete. 357 years after Pierre de Fermat had stated his original frustrating comment in the margin of Arithmetica, his great proof had finally been completed.

Andrew’s name quickly gained popularity within the mathematical community. But it is intriguing to think of his addition to the mathematical world in a wider viewpoint. As we look at his life and his work, will they be preserved one hundred, one thousand or even a hundred thousand years from now? Will we remember his name and why he was important? Now that Fermat’s theorem has been proved and is no longer an active query, will we eventually forget why he was important and what Andrew Wiles did for us?

This is a concept that we have discussed in the viewpoint of the Rhind Papyrus and Plimpton 322. Through the years, we have lost the history behind these items; the understanding of why they were written and what purpose they served. With the better documentation of today’s time, will we be able to access these facts on Wiles’ proof years down the road or will culture itself deem them unimportant and forget them? It is important to preserve the history of mathematics now so that generations afterward can learn from the findings of today.

Fun Facts about Andrew Wiles after his proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem:

  • In 1999, Andrew got an asteroid named after him called asteroid 9999 Wiles
  • In 2000, Andrew became Sir Andrew Wiles and was made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire by the Queen
  • In Star Trek: The Next Generation (as Andrew was working on his proof), they stated the Fermat’s Last Theorem was still yet unproved. In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, they correct themselves and mention Andrew’s proof.
  • Andrew’s proof is mentioned in The Girl Who Played With Fire, and also The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest by Stieg Larsson
  • Both Tom Lehrer and BATS have written songs about Andrew’s proof.
  • In 2001, there is a musical written about Andrew Wiles and his proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem called “Fermat’s Last Tango”. You can watch it here:
    • By the way, it’s hilarious. Daniel Keane (who plays Andrew) meets Fermat and goes to the “Aftermath” to meet Gauss, Euclid and Newton.