Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Fermat's Last Theorem

Mathematics has never had a reputation as being the most exciting subject in the world. Writing a book about how a 300 year old Theorem was proved does not sound like a sure fire winner. Making the book accessible to the lay reader, and topping international best-seller lists, sounds even more far-fetched.

Simon Singh attacks the task with relish. Fermat's Theorem has its roots in Ancient Greece and Singh's book outlines a history of the development of Mathematics, particularly those parts which have a bearing on the theorem in question.

At times, some points are over simplified and repeated needlessly, while at others, some steps in the explanation of the mathematics involved are not explained enough. For the most part, however, the pitch is right for the lay reader with, in my case, only high school knowledge of Maths.

Fermat's theorem, which is based in Pythagorean thought, appears simple but required deeply complex and abstract Maths to prove it. Singh outlines the thought structure of the proof and some of the key ideas involved with broad brush strokes.

The secret to Singh's success, though, lies not in his explanatory powers but the way he fleshes out the various theories and conjectures described with the backgrounds of the main players. By doing so, he gives the story a human edge and provides a narrative edge to the facts and figures of the tale.

The end result is a fascinating and - particularly towards the end - gripping tale of how one of the longest standing problems in Mathematics was solved. An early candidate to be my favourite book this year, I'll happily recommend it to anyone.


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