Saturday, June 10, 2006

Fermat's Enigma

It's hard to imagine someone writing an interesting book about math. Everyone is used to dull text books, fall asleep lectures and the unending hatred of a subject so complex that no other topic in the world has more students screaming "I'm never going to need this in real life." (Please excuse me, the preceeding statement is incorrect; there are people who enjoy math and don't find it incredibly frustrating but ask just about anyone and they'll say they will never need it in real life. wink).

Two years ago, while on a trip to Virginia, I read "The Code Book". by Simon Singh. It was a fascinating read about cryptography through the ages. When you have subject matter covering ancient greece, war, esponiage, royalty, politics and the future, its not difficult to imagine someone injecting color into a subject generally discussed in terms of prime numbers, diffie hellman and keys.

Tonight I read another of Singh's books: "Fermat's Enigma". The book is a tale of dedication, history, mysticism and even some P.T. Barnum circus antics all leading up to the 20th century's most important mathematical theorem solving the 17th's century most intreging mathematical hypothesis.

I'll spare the details of Fermat's theorm a^n + b^n = c^n, n > 2: No Solution, and instead jump inside the book.

What I liked most about this book is its willingness to both simplify mathematical concepts that most people (including myself) will never fully understand while always provoking the reader to go examine things on his or her own at every chance. There are numerous appendicies elaborating on a number of tricky concepts including Pythagoras's Theorem (a^2 + b^2 = c^2) through the proof that there are an infinite number of triples satisifing the previous equation. Singh's carefully crafted explainations continuaully led me to diverge from the book and take a look at some of the things he presented in just enough detail to make me do a little thinking on my own. Like in "The Code Book," Singh engages his reader and succesfully implores them to go out and learn on their own.

Another strong element in "Fermat's Enigma" is history. Again, like the last book of his I read, Singh prints a good picture of history covering mathematics over the ages while always converging on Andrew Wiles' quest to resolve Fermat's taunting suggestion.

I will assume that like myself reading "Nudist on the Late Shift," or other internet history books, Mathematicians may find Singhs analysis not nearly stimulating enough and at times wrong but for me, reading "Fermat's Enigma" definatly broadened my understanding of math, made me appreciate the work those smart people do and expaned my understanding of history. I would definatly recommend this book to anyone even minimally interested in mathematics from either a numerical/theoretical aspect or as an interesting thread of human progress.