For more than 350 years, it had been the Holy Grail of mathematics. In 1637, Pierre de Fermat, a French magistrate and mathematician, claimed that equations of the form x² + y² = z² (as in the Pythagorean theorem) have no positive whole-number solutions when the exponent is greater than 2. "I have discovered a truly marvelous proof of this," he wrote in a math book, "but this margin is too small to contain it." Those words tempted generations of scholars into a seemingly hopeless quest to prove Fermat's Last Theorem—and generated hundreds of solutions, all of them wrong.
Mathematicians were thus amazed and elated by an electronic message zapped through Internet, the worldwide computer network, last June 23: "F.L.T. proved by Wiles." Just that quickly, a shy, bespectacled Princeton professor named Andrew Wiles was catapulted from obscurity to fame. Working feverishly and in secret—and without a computer—for seven years in his attic, Wiles, the 40-year-old British son of an Oxford theologian, had apparently proved Fermat's theorem using math unheard of in Fermat's day. His solution filled 200 pages. How did he feel about his achievement? Said Wiles: "There is a sense of loss, actually." Once he finishes a more detailed version of his proof, Wiles will be able to catch up on life with his wife and two young daughters—and look for new mysteries to solve.
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