Sunday, 2 May 2010

358 years of Inspiration

It could have well been a thriller, the pace at which the story moves. By the end of it, you are definitely holding your breath, wondering whether Andrew Wiles will succeed in achieving his childhood dreams. And if there is something other than the Last Lecture, that makes a case for following your dreams and passions, it is Fermat's Last Theorem by Simon Singh.

It isn't the kind of book you would expect for something written about a mathematical theorem and the solving of it. For most of us, we left behind the dreary world of maths and its incomprehensibly abstract theorems in school. Okay, I'll correct that, most Indians I assume pursued a part of it into engineering. But we certainly left it behind at that. Simon Singh's Fermat's Last Theorem brings forth not the dreariness of a maths question in an exam but the thrill of puzzle solving. The absolute elation at having gotten in that last piece of the jigsaw puzzle after painstakingly working through the edges to the center.

He tells the story of the world's longest unsolved puzzle (Fermat's Last Theorem remain unproved for a whopping 358 years) instead of presenting the mathematical proof. He builds the anguish that has surrounded the mathematical community and the edginess of not being able to sleep with an unsolved question in the head with the panache of a mystery author. What contributes to the pace of the book is the fact that it is low on jargon and high on history, low on technology and high on personalities. Simon Singh guides the reader through the entire fascinating history of mathematics starting with Pythogoras. He demonstrates what must have inspired geniuses like Pierre de Fermat and Andrew Wiles by giving the reader a first hand glimpse of what they read and what they saw. Through many an anecdote, he sketches a vivid portrait of the beauty and perfection that the discipline of mathematics aspires to and the passion that drives most mathematicians.

For me, the most elating discovery was that the utterly incomprehensible (to me) and abstract edifice of mathematics (I dreaded the subject in school and barely cleared it, I must confess) is built upon only 8 simple axioms that even I can comprehend! It brought me closer to understanding the beauty of maths that draws many minds to it. After much time, I've read a book that has made me want to recommend it to everyone I know. And yes, as an after thought, it is ironic that it is a book on mathematics, and I am sure my mom will be elated about the same!


rehab said...

We should recommend this and 'The Language of Mathematics' or Feynman to schools.
I am sure the frightened kids would learn the subject with renewed interest.

Nithya Ravi said...

@rehab Oh there is definitely so much that schools could do. In fact, there's this group of three people my mother was telling me about. They are a library service in the sense that they provide schools in Chennai with a rotating stock of books. Also, they go to the school each time a class has a library period and conducted activities with the children that get them more involved in the learning and reading process. Am going to be meeting them when I go this time. Really looking forward to it. :)