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The story behind the proof of Fermat's Last Theorem

Joseph X. Zhou's picture

When I came to the institute, my collaborator Kay invited me for a dinner in the new town together with his friend Thilo and other guys. The city is wisely divided into two functioning areas, old town and new town. All the ancient buildings like King’s summer palace, women’s church and opera house are in the old town; while the restaurants, bars and other modern buildings are in the new town. Each is in harmony with its environment and cultural atmosphere.

We went to an Italian restaurant. The sentence on its menu board reads:”think globally, eat locally”, which roughly means that even it is a local restaurant, it offers global food options. It is true. After ordering the food, it turns out that six of us ordered totally different food: Kay ordered American style fish salad with chips, Thilo ordered Greece style salad with bread, Martin ordered beef steak cooked in North European way, and I ordered Chinese style fried beef and vegetable with rice. It was still summer then.  We sat around a long table under the shade of the vine in the backyard of the house. It was green everywhere, with green plants covering the wall, lovely flowers blooming in the small Garden. There was a well for fetching water, just like any ordinary local residence here. Several big candles were burning since it is getting dark. A man in the casual dress was playing his guitar and singing lovely Italian songs.

After the dinner, with beers in hands, Thilo began to tell his stories when he once was a researcher in the math department of Princeton University. He said, academic jobs in the university are quite demanding. You have to play multiple roles in one person, as a researcher at first hand, also as a lecturer to teach courses for undergraduates and postgraduates; a fund raiser to get money for your research group; a manager to handle with quite a few Postdocs and Phds in your group; a faculty member for the service in the department; a paper reviewer or an editor for your academic community. You don’t need to be smart to know how busy an academia is.

Publish or perish.  The cliche still works nowadays. Without enough papers published, without enough funding, you will fail before this strict rule, “up or out” , if you don’t get your tenure within six years.

“Then how those big names do their research?”, somebody asked.

“Today I will reveal a secret”, he paused.

“What secret? Don’t be mean, please tell us”, we said.

“OK. Do you guys know Fermat's Last Theorem?”

“Yes, we do”

“Do you know who proved this theorem?”

“Aha, you call it secret? Everyone here knows that is it is Prof. Andrew Wiles who spent about 10 years to prove it. The final proof from him came in publication in 1994”

“It is correct. However, do you guys know how Prof. Andrew Wiles found these 10 years to dedicate himself to the Great Fermat theorem?”, he said, “Prof. Andrew Wiles told me by himself, in order to focus on the proof of  the Fermat's Last Theorem, there was one year in which he worked extremely hard to write 20 papers and locked them up in his desk drawer. Then he would pick up two to publish each year. In this way, he gained precious ten years to allow himself to do nothing else except Fermat's Last Theorem”

Nowadays in the era of science research being measured by SCI, Impact Factors, funding committees etc., most researchers would not risk themselves to focus on some true problems which demand some deep insights and long commitments. This is a simple fact in our current funding system. No wonder, in a report to the US president by President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee, named “Computational Science: Ensuring America’s Competitiveness”, a group of leading scientists expressed their concerns:

“Based on its analysis of Federal R&D agency activities, PITAC concluded that Federal support for computational science research has been overly focused on short-term, low-risk activities. In the long term, this is actually a high-risk strategy that is less likely to yield the high-payoff, strategic innovations needed for the future.”

Now we are in the age of competition: everything is required to be done faster; everybody is required to produce more with less time. Nobody knows what the end of this road is; Nobody knows whether it is the right way. It is more or less to make people to feel nostalgia about the golden days of science in the past time, before NSF or any other funding committees are established. For example, in Cambridge University, after becoming a member of the faculty, you have the freedom to do whatever you like to do within the university’s resources. You don’t need apply any special funding for it. Nobody will evaluate your research every 2~3 years. However, those golden time is gone. Now we can not undo what we had already done. More importantly, we can not back to the age of doing science without complicated devices and giant machines, which are essential for the progress of bio-science and nano-technologies etc.

What could we do? It is impossible to ask researchers to work harder, like Prof. Whils did his pre-work before the proof of the Fermat's Last Theorem. Some young researchers have already died prematurely for their overworking. We also could not change the system of competitive application for funding and the peer-review, which have been proved to be the pillars for the current progress of science. Maybe there is NO solution for everybody in general. Each one has to create your own means to meet your own ends. Just like what Prof. Wiles did, we should know what our real interest is and hold it dear to our heart always, and then try to do the best from the least.

Whenever I read the Steve Jobs’ commencement address in Stanford, I could not help being moved by his “three stories”, which are linked together to make his life shine like a diamond. He is a real man, a true hero who sticks to his ideals always. At the end his speech, he said:

“When I was young, there was an amazing publication called The Whole Earth Catalog, which was one of the bibles of my generation. It was created by a fellow named Stewart Brand not far from here in Menlo Park, and he brought it to life with his poetic touch. This was in the late 1960's, before personal computers and desktop publishing, so it was all made with typewriters, scissors, and polaroid cameras. It was sort of like Google in paperback form, 35 years before Google came along: it was idealistic, and overflowing with neat tools and great notions.

Stewart and his team put out several issues of The Whole Earth Catalog, and then when it had run its course, they put out a final issue. It was the mid-1970s, and I was your age. On the back cover of their final issue was a photograph of an early morning country road, the kind you might find yourself hitchhiking on if you were so adventurous. Beneath it were the words: "Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish." It was their farewell message as they signed off. Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish. And I have always wished that for myself. And now, as you graduate to begin anew, I wish that for you.

Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.“


Zhigang Suo's picture

Thank you, Joseph, for this post.  I followed it up and found a video of Jobs speech at Stanford commencement 2005.  It was indeed inspiring.

Englightening post.

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