On 24 May 2016 Sir Andrew John Wiles KBE, FRS, a British mathematician and a Royal Society Research Professor at the University of Oxford specialising in number theory, received the prestigious Abel Prize worth over $700,000 for proving that an infamous mathematical equation known as Fermat’s Last Theorem was indeed impossible to solve.
Fermat’s last theorem
The solution to Fermat’s last theorem had eluded mathematicians for over 300 years. The hypothesis for this theorem was first stated by Pierre de Fermat in 1637 in the margin of a copy of Arithmetica. Fermat claimed that his proof was too large to fit in the margin. The theorem is an equation that postulates that x^n+y^n can never equal z^n for any value of n greater than 2. Proof of Fermat’s claim was never written down and over the next 358 years, mathematicians would search for the solution.
Listed in the The Guinness Book of World Records as the “most difficult mathematical problem”, partly due to having the largest number of unsuccessful proofs, Fermat’s Last Theorem stimulated the development of algebraic number theory in the nineteenth century and the proof of the modularity theorem in the twentieth century.
In 1994 Andrew Wiles, after seven years research, released a 150 page proof of the solution. This was formally published in 1995 (Annals of Mathematics 141: pp 443-551). The solution proves that all semistable elliptic curves are modular, confirming Fermat’s Last Theorem.
The Abel Prize
The Abel Prize was established in 2001 by the Academy of Science and Letters in Norway to recognize significant achievements in mathematics. Explaining its decision, the committee noted that Wiles had “open[ed] a new era in number theory” and that he had developed new tools that have allowed researchers to make larger efforts to bring disparate branches of mathematics together. Wiles travelled to Oslo to receive his award at a formal ceremony from Norway’s Crown Prince Haakon.
Professor Andrew Wiles’ background
Wiles was intrigued by the problem even as a young boy. His proof is not only ground-breaking in the field of mathematics, but the culmination of a remarkable personal journey that began three decades earlier. When Andrew Wiles was 10 years old, he read Eric Temple Bell’s “The Last Problem” a book that traces the problem of Fermat’s Last Theorem from 2000 BC to seventeenth century France. The book’s focus, as a biography of a famous problem mixing social history with mathematics, impressed Wiles so much that he decided he would be the ﬁrst person to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem. Realising his knowledge was too limited, he abandoned his childhood dream until it was brought back to his attention at the age of 33 by Ken Ribet’s 1986 proof of the epsilon conjecture, which Gerhard Frey had previously linked to Fermat’s famous equation.
Wiles says he hopes his work will inspire younger numbers aces “to take up mathematics and to work on the many challenges of this attractive and fascinating subject”.