Andrew Wiles

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Andrew Wiles bigraphy, stories - Mathematician

Andrew Wiles : biography

11 April 1953 –

Sir Andrew John Wiles, KBE, FRS (born 11 April 1953) "WILES, Sir Andrew (John)", Who’s Who, A & C Black, January 2007 is a British mathematician and a Royal Society Research Professor at Oxford University, specializing in number theory. He is most notable for proving Fermat’s Last Theorem.

In popular culture

  • An episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, filmed while Wiles was researching the proof, asserted that Fermat’s Last Theorem remains unproven in the 24th century. An episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine mentioned Wiles’s proof.
  • He was also mentioned in Stieg Larsson’s second book of the Millennium trilogy The Girl Who Played With Fire, and also the third, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest. Wiles was credited with solving Fermat’s Last Theorem when the female protagonist Lisbeth Salander attempted to solve it.
  • Tom Lehrer updated the lyrics to his song That’s Mathematics, to mention that Wiles "confirms what Fermat / Jotted down in that margin / Which could’ve used some enlargin’."
  • Rock band Bats have a song named after Wiles which describes his career.
  • Rock Band Kineto wrote a song about his endless pursuit to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem.
  • Wiles and his achievement are also mentioned in Yoko Ogawa’s novel The Housekeeper and the Professor.
  • Wiles’ 1993 presentation in Cambridge is mentioned in the novel The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martínez, which was adapted into a film of the same title.

Early life and education

Wiles is the son of Maurice Frank Wiles (1923–2005), the Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of OxfordWILES, Rev. Prof. Maurice Frank, Who Was Who, A & C Black, January 2007. and Patricia Wiles (née Mowll). His father worked as the Chaplain at Ridley Hall, Cambridge, for the years 1952–55. Wiles was born in Cambridge, England, in 1953, and he attended King’s College School, Cambridge, and The Leys School, Cambridge.

Wiles states that he came across Fermat’s Last Theorem on his way home from school when he was 10 years old. He stopped by his local library where he found a book about the theorem. Fascinated by the existence of a theorem that was so easy to state that he, a ten-year old, could understand it, but nobody had proven it, he decided to be the first person to prove it. However, he soon realized that his knowledge was too small, so 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.

The proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem

Starting in the summer of 1986, based on successive progress of the previous few years of Gerhard Frey, Jean-Pierre Serre and Ken Ribet, it became clear that Fermat’s Last Theorem could be proven as a corollary of a limited form of the modularity theorem (unproven at the time and then known as the "Taniyama–Shimura-Weil conjecture"). The modularity theorem involved elliptic curves, which was also Wiles’ own specialist area.

The conjecture was seen by contemporary mathematicians as important, but extraordinarily difficult or perhaps inaccessible to proof.[Fermat’s Last Theorem, Simon Singh, 1997, ISBN 1-85702-521-0 For example, Wiles’ ex-supervisor John Coates states that it seemed "impossible to actually prove", and Ken Ribet considered himself "one of the vast majority of people who believed [it] was completely inaccessible", adding that "Andrew Wiles was probably one of the few people on earth who had the audacity to dream that you can actually go and prove [it]." 

Despite this, Wiles, who had a childhood fascination with Fermat’s Last Theorem – decided to undertake the challenge of proving the conjecture – at least to the extent needed for Frey’s curve – as the conjecture itself was also a professionally "worthwhile" and significant research area. He dedicated all of his research time to this problem for over 6 years in near-total secrecy, covering up his efforts by releasing prior work in small segments as separate papers and confiding only in his wife. In 1993, he presented his proof to the public for the first time at a conference in Cambridge. In August 1993 it turned out that the proof contained a flaw in one area. Wiles tried and failed for over a year to repair his proof. According to Wiles, the crucial idea for circumventing, rather than closing this area, came to him on 19 September 1994 when he was on the verge of giving up. Together with his former student Richard Taylor, he published a second paper which circumvented the problem and thus completed the proof. Both papers were published in 1995 in a special volume of the Annals of Mathematics.