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Pierre de Fermat

BIOGRAPHY 8.3 Pierre de Fermat (1601 -1665)

Pierre de Fermat was born at Beaumont-de-Lomagne, France, where his father was a leather merchant. Even though he practiced law, when the courts went into recess he studied literature and mathematics. His knowledge of the chief European languages and the literature of Europe was wide; he even wrote verses in Latin, French, and Spanish. His main contribution, though, was to mathematics ---in particular, the theory of probability. Many of his original ideas have been preserved in a vast correspondence with scientists all over Europe. Among the many correspondents was Blaise Pascal (see Biography 9.2) whose name is always linked with Fermat as one of the joint discoverers of the laws of probability.

Among mathematicians, Fermat is most famous for a deceptively simple theorem that he wrote in the margin of a book, adding that he had discovered a marvellous proof of it but lacked space to include it in the margin. Then he died, and mathematicians have been trying ever since to supply the missing proof. The problem is now known as Fermat's last theorem. It states that there exists no solution to the equation xn + yn = zn when n is a whole number greater than 2. For example, while 32 + 42 = 52, it is not true that 33 + 43 equals 53. For over 300 years, the most brilliant minds struggled with Fermat's challenge. Finally, in the 1990s, Princeton's Andrew Wiles came up with the proof - it took him over nine years of work!

Sources: Adapted from F.N. David, Games, Gods, and Gambling (New York: Hafner, 1962), Chapters 8 and 9 and Appendix 4; Gina Kolata, "At Last, Shout of 'Eureka!' In Age-Old Math Mystery," The New York Times, June 24, 1993, pp. A1 and D22; James Gleick, "Fermat's Theorem," The New York Times Magazine, October 3, 1993, pp. 52-53; and Gina Kolata, ".While a Mathematician Calls Classic Riddle Solved," The New York Times, October 27, 1994, pp. A1 and B12.

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