Posted by: topher274 | October 14, 2008

The Enigma and the Tango

I suppose it started my junior year of high school. I read this book. ‘Fermat’s Enigma’ by Simon Singh.
Empowered by the Dewey Decimal system, whenever I went to a library, I would go to the beginnings of the 500s (the 510s, to be exact) and look for the math books.

I don’t know when math started to fascinate me. In elementary school, I was terrible at math. It was awful – they would have these “Mad Minute” multiplication worksheets: 60 mulitplication problems to do in a minute. I would never get past five or six of them. The whole way through, arithmetic was a struggle. Perhaps it was the way it was taught, I always had trouble.

When I got to high school, things started to change. As I sat in algebra class, I found that it was so very, very easy. And very, very fun. There was a beauty in learning this new language, and a great beauty in the sorts of things that could be expressed in it. The FOIL method (you know, like (5x+2)(3x-1)). That’s when it all started to turn around for me. My high school arranged for me to take more math classes at a local community college where I learned calculus. It was so wonderful. Those classes were during my junior year of high school.

Back to this book. I’m not sure why I picked it up. I’d heard about Fermat’s last theorem (perhaps first in the Guinness book of World Records). It seemed pretty straightforward. It was especially enigmatic because the question was so very, very simple, but the proof had eluded mathematicians from 1637 when he wrote it, until the proof in 1995! Many other unsolved problems in mathematics (the Riemann Zeta hypothesis, for instance) are unbelievably difficult to even explain, let alone trying to come up with anything like a solution.

But Fermat’s Last Theorem is easily understood by anyone who knows the Pythagorean theorem, that the square of the long side of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other sides.  or a^2 + b^2 = c^2. Now there are many whole number solutions to this problem. Like the triangle where a = 3, b = 4, and c = 5. Try it out!

Fermat’s theorem states that though this works for powers of 2, it doesn’t work for 3 or 4 or for any whole number greater than 2. That’s it. Proving that to be true took 357 years. Fermat himself, was kind of a jerk. And he wrote the following in the margin of a math book when he figured it out.

I have discovered a truly marvelous proof of this, which this margin is too small to contain.

Jerk. He wrote many other things in many other margins. Some with half-worked-out proofs, some with nothing. And one by one, every single thing he said was proven to be true or false. Every single one. But this was the last one that persisted far longer than any other.

When I read “Fermat’s Enigma,” my eyes were opened to the rich and fascinating story of the history of this proof. All sorts of colorful characters, heroes, and scoundrels are wrapped up in its history. There was Sophie Germain, the woman mathematician who wrote with a pen name (Monsieur La Blanc) to K. F. Gauss, demonstrating her great skill before revealing her female identity. There was E. Galois, the brilliant teenage mathematician and political dissident. He died in a duel when he was 20 years old, but the night before, he stayed up all night and wrote his entire mathematical system (referred to as Galois theory). He finished, went to the duel and was killed. There was even P. Wolfskehl, who had planned to commit suicide, but having planned so meticulously the time of his death, found himself with a few hours of free time. He got distracted by this theorem, and worked on it all night. Seeing the sun rise, and himself still alive, he considered this fiendish theorem truly to have saved his life.

Anyway, I was fascinated and enthralled by the whole story, and its great culmination of Andrew Wiles solving the proof in 1995. I started my life on a path of math from that point, all the way until I discovered other languages. I loved math, but I also loved Greek (the first language I ever took), and that one fateful night when Sara Pompper showed me the deep connection between math and linguistics. (And taking a course in Topology later on convinced me out of a math carrer).

So why write about all this? Well it is a key part of my own development and journey, but there is a more immediate reason. My brother David gave his old iPod to my mother, and I have been listening to it during my temporary job (which ends this week). Dave, suffice it to say, is a musical theatre professional – he’s in a national touring company of Sweeny Todd right now. Hundreds of musicals, both great and obscure are on this iPod ready to be discovered by me. Such hidden gems as “Zombie Prom,” or “110 in the Shade” or even “A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Paegant”.

I found “Fermat’s Last Tango.” An extremely obscure show, Fermat’s Last Tango is a musical all about the solving of this proof. Robert Keane (they changed Andrew Wiles’ name to this) is on the verge of solving the problem and some wonderful craziness happens. The roadblocks in the theorem are enfleshed by a portrayal of Fermat himself, and much of the musical centers on the relationship between Keane, his wife, and Fermat. Along with a somewhat zany plotline about where mathematicans go when they die, the ‘Aftermath’ with a singing and dancing Pythagoras, Euclid, Isaac Newton, and Karl Freidrich Gauss.

Now, why does this impress me so much? Well, it was incredibly awesome! I had a more-than-cursory understanding of this whole thing from the start, and I could connect with the math, etc, but that’s not mostly why I am spending a whole blog post on it. Rather, this musical represents to me a wonderful and important work. Two very different fields of study, two distant worlds from each other: number theory in mathematics, and musical theatre. The writers of this musical were able to take this important and wonderful mathematical story, and give it as a gift in the language of a completely different discipline.

This gets at the heart of my vision for my life in intercultural communication. There are such wonderful things in different communities, such beauty and glory in so many things. But much of it is so inaccessible to those in different traditions and in different languages. But oh for a person or people who can translate –  not just a word-for-word, a stiff and wooden equivalency, but a true transfer of truth and beauty across disciplines, across culture groups, and across oceans. Fermat’s Last Tango has strengthened my heart, my resolve, and my calling.

And I loved it.



  1. I love that a musical did all of that for you. This is yet another reason my heart will miss you once you’re in Korea.

  2. I shall find a musical about the Higgs Boson and if this proves an impossibility I shall write one.

    It will be the tale of two physicists Dr. Stephen Hawking and Professor Peter Higgs and it shall chronicle their disdain for one another in song. It will end dramatically with a fuzzy white dot feverishly hovering over students in universities analyzing the data via the grid with the mythical particle at center stage singing it’s tale of woe in a solo entitled “Do I exist?”.

    I think this is going to be big.

  3. “But oh for a person or people who can translate – not just a word-for-word, a stiff and wooden equivalency….”

    And this is why I love you Chris. My parents are on the ground in Seoul right now. I hope you get so see them. When I told my sister that you’re at Yangchungu yuk she said, “Chincha?” I almost replied “biged” but realized that I would be responding to Korean with Arabic, how silly.

    Can’t wait to hear more.

  4. That’s awesome. I love the connections. I was excited about the fact that you were talking about math-y things. (You know my love for Math-y things.) But it became far more exciting when I realized that it was helping me understand something else that you are passionate about.

    I had a friend in college who changed her major because of Topology. (She still pursued math, but decide to take the Stats route over pure math.) I almost followed suit (just out of fear). But it ended up being my favorite class. I think I probably told you that, though. Somewhere around the time we stood behind the registers of the bookstore working on Topology proofs for fun.

    Sigh… I miss you, friend!

  5. “…oh for a person or people who can translate – not just a word-for-word, a stiff and wooden equivalency, but a true transfer of truth and beauty across disciplines…”

    that’s exactly what I’m trying to do with poetry.

    Love you

  6. This is why i don’t understand people that like musicals. if my ears can only hear so much, why would i subject it to musical song about unproved theorms? i don’t even know how to spell theorm, and i’m not going to learn either. there should be a group of people, nay, a panel, that all musicals have to be approved by. The panel would then make sure that terrible musicals do not get published. and there would be consequences. first offenders get beaten, second offenders a lombotomy, etc. then people wouldn’t have to listen to terrible things like musicals about zombie proms and the like.

    then you could turn it into a musical about the writers joining together to overthrow the evil panel of judges. and there could be a song about the cast of the worst musical ever written storming the gates of the art world to prove that non proven math things were just as valid as a spooky phantom that terrorizes an opera house.

  7. @ John – That would be the coolest musical ever.

  8. I hated those math 5-minute sheets! No, really. During 3rd and 4th grade it took me those two years to graduate from one-digit addition to two-digit addition. I was that dense. Calculus was great; those 5-minute sheets were murder.

  9. “Fermat’s Last Tango has strengthened my heart, my resolve, and my calling.” that really got to me.

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