18 Aug

Those wild wacky mathematicians

Date: Wed, 18 Aug 93 13:46:16 PDT To: Fun_People Subject: Those wild wacky mathematicians From: vangogh.CS.Berkeley.EDU!bostic (Keith Bostic) From: lblum@ICSI.Berkeley.EDU (Lenore Blum) In case you missed Wednesday night's sold out performance of the "hottest math show in town," Fermat's Last Theorem: An Exploration of Issues and Ideas, here's a review that appeared in today's San Francisco Chronicle (July 30, 1993): 1,000 MATH BUFFS LEARN WHY THEOREM ADDS UP By Steve Rubenstein, Chronicle Staff Writer The number 1,000 may not be large, as numbers go, but it was big enough to stun the world of mathematics. One thousand is the number of people who showed up Wednesday night to attend a math lecture, of all things, at the Palace of Fine Arts Theater. Never before had so many people sat so quietly and scratched their heads so often. "One thousand people," said an amazed mathematician. "That's a one followed by three zeros." They came to find out about Fermat's Last Theorem and why it is such a big deal. Ever since a Princeton mathematician announced last month that he has solved the 350 year old problem, people have been wondering why it took so long to crunch a few lousy numbers. The Bay Area's top mathematicians, brought together by the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute of Berkeley, rented the hall to explain. Hardly anyone expected more than a few dozen curious math hounds to show up. Instead, the lecture sold out almost immediately. Scores of math fans without tickets were turned away, including professors from Vienna and Modesto. Scalpers were working the front door, peddling the $5 tickets for $25. There were official souvenir programs. There was a snack bar, with math snacks. There was a musician singing funny math songs. It was a night to remember. "We're not selling a lot of wine," said the women at the snack bar. "People want to keep a clear head tonight." The speakers were under strict orders to keep it simple. Remember, there are laymen (and women) out there. Fermat had kept it simple. He said the the equation X^3 + Y^3 = Z^3 has no solution in whole numbers. That was in the 1600's, and it was so simple that no one could figure out whether he was right until last month. [The insert accompanying the article says: "The 350 year old mathematical mystery says that equations of the form... X^N + Y^N = Z^N ... have no [whole number] solutions when N is a positive whole number greater than 2. ..."] One by one, the mathematicians on the bill stepped onstage and began keeping it simple. The first speaker [Bob Osserman, with Bill Thurston in a supporting role] said Fermat's theorem had something to do with right triangles. He flashed pictures of triangles on an overhead projector. Mathematicians are never far from an overhead projector. The next speaker [Lenore Blum] said it had to do with cubes of wood, and she tried to show that you cannot place three giant cubes on a balance beam so that two of them balance the third. Up next was a fellow [Karl Rubin] who sad that Fermat's theorem is all about elliptic curves, and that all elliptic curves are modular. No one disputed it. Finally came Ken Ribet, a wistful world-renowned expert who almost cracked the problem himself a few years ago and sounded like he wishes he had kept at it. He said the theorem really has to do with "Galois representations, Iwasawa Theory, Euler systems and congruencies among modular forms." The laymen (and women) nodded. [And John Conway's finale brought down the house.] In between the mathematicians, piano man Morris Bobrow took the stage to pound out funny math songs, including one that rhymed "sure as shootin'" with "Isaac Newton." He did not use the overhead projector, and got the most applause of all. When it was over, mathematicians said they are pretty sure that the Princeton guy, Andrew Wiles, is right, but not absolutely. The math community has not reviewed the entire 200-page solution yet. Math professor Joe Buhler, of Reed College in Portland, Ore., said Wiles's proof "seems to follow a plausible line of reasoning. "It is elegant and beautiful, and it has a feeling of being eternally true," Buhler said. "But it is possible to be deceived by truth and beauty." The non-mathematicians, for whom it had been kept simple, said they surely received a lot of math for only $5. "I don't understand it." said one fellow, munching elliptical pretzels from the math snack bar. "But you don't have to understand everything."

© 1993 Peter Langston