Jimmy's Reviews > Fermat's Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World's Greatest Mathematical Problem

Fermat's Enigma by Simon Singh
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's review
Apr 12, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: united-kingdom, male, non-fiction, year-1990s, poc
Read on December 10, 2011

A fantastically entertaining and educational book about the quest to solve the oldest math problem: Fermat's Last Theorem. The intrigue, mystery, and drama surrounding the famous theorem without a proof (but that Fermat had said he had a proof for, just not enough space to write it in the margins) is exciting enough. All the math greats who have attempted to solve it but come up a little short, or a lot short.

But it's much more than that, since the final proof of Fermat's Theorem involves so many other math concepts. This book starts and ends with Fermat, but in the middle it is more like a grand tour of all the mathematical developments that make the proof even possible. It's interesting to read about all the different dead ends and other productive findings (that had tangentially made it a little more possible to solve Fermat, but whose main contribution was in some other area). Also, reading about Galois's amazing life always makes me giddy. I mean, I've read about him before, but his story is just so crazy--math genius turned revolutionary thrown in jail involved in affair ends in duel, scribbles out his last thoughts the night before he dies... amazing.

But don't expect to understand how the proof actually works by the end. The proof itself is over 100 pages, so there is no way a normal non-math genius can understand it. But you will get a general idea of the approach/trajectory/style of the final beast. Also, some of the math concepts leading up to it are quite easily comprehensible. I wouldn't recommend this book to a math whiz... it's more of a fun read for the layperson.

It would ultimately be more satisfying if the proof were a short elegant thing that didn't involve latest groundbreaking discoveries in math. But maybe the bright side is that we can still wonder about Fermat's original (alleged) proof that was never written down. It had to be different from Andrew Wile's proof; does it exist? Or was Fermat bluffing? Or did he make an error in his proof?
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by David S. T. (new)

David S. T. Let me know if you plan to read his big bang book, its on my to read list.

Jimmy Hmm... I didn't know about it. Maybe. I'm not as interested in the big bang, but Singh was a good writer, so maybe it will be just as interesting. I'll see if the library has it.

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