Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Amir D. Aczel - Fermat's Last Theorem: Unlocking the Secret of an Ancient Mathematical Problem

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

Anyone who took math in high school would remember the Pythagorean theorem. It states that the sum of the squares of the two sides of a right triangle equals the square of the hypotenuse. (More basically, that a squared plus b squared equals c squared.) Then, along came Fermat, who stated that two is the only whole-number power greater than one to which this equation is possible, at least with whole numbers as a and b. This means that you could have A cubed plus B cubed equaling C cubed. Supposedly, Fermat had proof, but he never wrote it down.

In the 300 years since Fermat wrote that down, many great minds have tried to figure out how to prove (or disprove) what became known as Fermat’s Last Theorem. This book shows many of the major players and how they went about trying to get the answer, which was eventually solved. (Yes, it was an extremely difficult problem.)

I thought the book was a little short. It was only 147 pages, which made for an easy read. While the book covered the subject matter pretty well, it didn’t go into a lot of detail. There were many mathematical theorems and proofs that built up to the proof for Fermat’s Last Theorem; someone that doesn’t know a lot about higher math will probably be lost. I was able to follow the book, but there were still a few things that I didn’t know much about.

Instead of focusing on the mathematical detail, the book is more of a historical account of what happened. For instance, Fermat lived for another 26 years, I believe, after writing out his famous equation. In that time, he never bothered to write out his proof. It’s believed that his proof was much simpler than the one we have now, mostly because it used a lot of math that Fermat didn’t have available. However, we’ll never know if Fermat actually had a proof or if he just wrote out this equation on a whim.

(On a side note, there was an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Captain Picard mentions Fermat’s Last Theorem, stating that it hadn’t yet been solved. That episode aired a few years prior to the finding of the solution.)

One thing that I noticed, and I might be imagining this, is that it seemed like there was a lot of repetition. I know that I wasn’t repeating any pages, but there were some passages that seemed familiar, as if I had just read them a few pages back. Maybe I had accidentally gone back a few pages, but I doubt it.

I’d give this book four stars, but I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. You will need some understanding of math. It may be somewhat difficult for the average person. If you’re into math, this would be a good book to read. 

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