A Life in Mathematics

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On May 24, Sir Andrew Wiles will be awarded the 2016 Abel Prize by Prince Haakon of Norway on behalf of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters “for his stunning proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem by way of the modularity conjecture for semistable elliptic curves, opening a new era in number theory.” If you think that description is written in a foreign language,  just know that Wiles is a mathematician being awarded for his proof of a math problem more than three centuries old.abel

Wiles’ first introduction to the problem that would become the crowning achievement of his career came to him as a young ten-year-old boy in Cambridge, England when he stumbled upon a copy of a book on Fermat’s Last Theorem. The problem originated from French mathematician Pierre de Fermat who, in 1637, claimed that he could prove the problem now known as Fermat’s Last Theorem, but he never provided a proof. The problem—that there are no whole number solutions to the equation x^n + y^n = z^n when n is greater than 2—remained unsolved for so long that many began to speculate that it was impossible to prove.

“I knew from that moment that I would never let it go,” recalls Wiles. “I had to solve it.” However, young Wiles had to set aside Fermat’s Last Theorem to focus on his academic career, as he was nowhere near proving the theory at only ten years of life. Wiles studied mathematics at Merton College, Oxford, then attended Clare College in Cambridge for postgraduate studies where his area of research was number theory. There, he studied elliptic curves with his advisor, John Coates, until he received his PhD in 1980. In this time, he also began studying modular forms, which he continued to study after becoming a professor at Princeton University.

In 1986, it was shown that Fermat’s Last Theorem could be rephrased in the mathematics of modular forms and elliptic curves, the two fields which Wiles had focused on. “The challenge proved irresistible,” noted Wiles, and he diverted all of his attention toward proving the theorem alone.

image-02-largeSeven years of work led him to a proof, but an error was found, forcing him to labor over it for another year, but this time with the help of his former student, Richard Taylor.

Andrew Wiles received several awards and recognitions, including a knighthood in 2000. Now he is being offered the Abel Prize and the $700,000 that comes with it, proving that a life in mathematics can end in fame and success.

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