Saturday, August 1, 2009

Fermat's Enigma

Book Review : Fermat's Enigma
Author : Simon Singh
My Rating : 5 out of 5 stars

Books explaining difficult concepts in physics have been around for a long time. But in recent years, a number of books have attempted to make famous (but esoteric) math concepts accessible to layman. This is a remarkably difficult task. And it is even more remarkable that some books succeed in it. After reading Prime Obsession, I started looking for more such books and found this book. And I am happy that it turned out to be as much fun.

Fermat's Last Theorem doesn't need any introduction. It is perhaps THE most famous problem ever. Mathematicians have tried to prove (or disprove) the theorem for centuries. That struggle is definitely one reason that makes it so famous. But for a layman, the reason perhaps is that, the problem is extremely simple to understand. But not so with the proof, which apparently is out of reach for even mathematicians.

Author Simon Singh does not make the proof accessible to us. That is not the point of the book. As he calls it, the book is about "The Epic Quest to Solve the World's Greatest Mathematical Problem". And that's perfect. Because even the outline of the proof is heavy enough. Simon Singh does the impossible - he not only makes the reader understand the rough outline, but at the same time he manages to convey the complexity of the math involved.

The book is way more than that outline. It presents the incredible story of Andrew Wiles and his phenomenal determination. But it's more than that as well. It presents the history of the attempted solutions and story of mathematicians who participated in this "epic quest". Obviously it starts with Pythagoras. But along the way many other mathematicians have made immense contributions and their stories are equally engaging. I had vaguely heard about Galois and Sophie German, but didn't know about their fascinating lives. And I had no idea who Taniyara and Shimoka were and how their conjecture is related to Fermat's theorem.

Simon Singh weaves the thread through these and many more brilliant mathematicians. The drama of their lives, the key breakthroughs, the triumphs and tragedies. It's a brilliantly written book. This is as close as I will ever come to understanding the proof. For that I cannot thank the author enough.

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