July 27, 2010

"Fermat's Last Theorem"

This 45 minute TV film made by Simon Singh is about how Andrew Wiles, after seven or eight years of work, cracked the most famous problem in mathematics, proving Fermat's Last Theorem of 1637. It has to be my favorite documentary ever. (It can be viewed online here.)

It helps that the mathematician has a guileless, emotionally transparent face. The opening scene is famous, but the expressions on Wiles's face from 35:15 to 35:40 alone would earn a Hollywood actor an Oscar nomination.


Anonymous said...

I highly recommend Adam Curtis's documentaries, especially The Century of Self.

dearieme said...

I was sitting at my desk in a Cambridge lab. A mathematical chum rushed in. "Fermat's been done and a bloke is about to give a bijou seminarette of his proof."
"Shall we go?" I enquired.
"I'm a particle physicist, you're a mathematical modeller. We wouldn't understand a word. And we wouldn't get a seat anyway."

So ended my brush with greatness.

Anonymous said...

Steve, the Video on Google you linked to is a UKDocumentary channel version. UKtv take BBC documentaries which run for an hour and strip out twenty minutes for advertising time.

If that's the only version you've watched, you haven't seen the whole thing.

dearieme said...

You're just a very naughty boy, Mr Sailer. You know what I mean.

Anonymous said...

Last year Time Magazine included a mathematical discovery in one of its top ten scientific breakthroughs, the proof by Asian mathematician Ngo Bao Chau of a conjecture posed decades ago by Canadian Robert Langlands. Time also used a very interesting photo portrait to celebrate these great investigators:,28804,1945379_1944416_1944435,00.html

dearieme said...

Ngo Bao Chau, Robert Langlands ...
Naughtiness everywhere I look.

Anonymous said...

"Time also used a very interesting photo portrait to celebrate these great investigators"

Heh. It's some trivial high-school arithmetic that the black chick is doing in the photo. Apart from the race angle, what's equally interesting is how the media continues to conflate arithmetic with Math.

Anyway, for a list of potential Fields medalists at ICM 2010 look here:


Whites (17): Marcolli, Lurie, Avila, Dinur, Aharov, Ben Green, Cedric Villani, Alexander Kuznetsov, Christopher Hacon, Rodnianski, Simon Brendle,Mark Kisin,Sudakov, Rodnianski, Ian Agol, D. Calegari, and Bringmann. At least 5 of these are Jewish.

East Asians (3): Zhiwei Yun, Yuan Xinyi, Ngo Bau Chau. 2 Chinese and 1 Vietnamese.

South Asians (5): Bhargava, Venkatesh, Soundararajan, Kedlaya, and Khare. All 5 Indians.

Blacks: :)

The elite Mathematicians are still overwhelmingly white.

jody said...

wiles describes math at the limits of human capability as being like exploring furniture in a dark room by bumping into stuff. this is very similar to the way edward witten describes it. witten likens it to the familiar tale of the 3 blind men trying to describe an elephant by touching it's different parts, each man coming away with a different idea of what an elephant looks like.

you can find good videos of witten on youtube, relating his slow and frustrating efforts to describe string theory and multidimensional space mathematically.

you can also watch videos of brian greene, who is a lot better speaker on the subject, explain how this relates to the work at the large hadron collider.

Anonymous said...

Professor Wiles always struck me as one of the gentlest men I ever met.

And his students - guys like Fred & Richard - were just like him.

And Nada was a real looker, back in the day.

stari_momak said...

Apropo of nothing, Nada means 'hope'.

Anonymous said...

His dad was a Professor of Divinity at Oxford University.

l said...

Most people watching this will have to accept on faith that solving this puzzle required genius (vs. insanity), even that it was at all important. Such is the divide.

Anonymous said...

Its a damn good documentary. Great pacing. Understated musical accompaniment matches Wiles' temperament exactly. Triumphant story.

Anonymous said...

We watched this in my Real Analysis class in college. What a marvelous documentary. I still get chills up my spine during the scene where he chokes up thinking about how the key insight came to him.