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  • 8/15/2004

Pierre de Fermat

(17 Aug 1601-12 Jan 1665)

Pierre de Fermat was born in the French town of Beaumont-de-Lomange.   Since he was born into a wealthy family, Fermat received his education from a local monastery, and then he studied University of Toulouse.   It may seem strange that the instigator of such an infamous problem was not a professional mathematician at all; rather, he was a lawyer.   In fact, Fermat was a rather high ranking official in the French government, and he was even appointed to the Parliament of Toulouse.
It was not Fermat's accomplishments as a lawyer that made him famous, however.   In his free time, he devoted his attention to the pursuit of mathematics, and it seems that he was quite gifted in this area.   Fermat has been dubbed "The Prince of Amateurs" by E.T. Bell, and he has left his mark on the mathematical world in his contributions to mathematics.   For example, it was through the correspondence of Fermat and Blaise Pascal that the mathematical representations of the laws of probability were born.   Also, it is a common belief that Sir Isaac Newton independently developed the mathematics known as calculus, but a note written byNewton (discovered in 1934) revealed thatNewton based his ideas of differential calculus on "Monsieur Fermat's method of drawing tangents."*   Even though Fermat's contributions to these branches of mathematics are extremely important, his most profound work involved the theory of numbers.  Fermat was particularly interested in the behavior of numbers, and he enjoyed solving problems in an old text written by Diophantus, the famous Greek mathematician. The name of the text was the Arithmetica, and it was a Latin translation of the Greek. The text contained one hundred problems that had already been solved by Diophantus. In the margins of the text, Fermat would scribble new ideas that were inspired by Diophantus' problems, and he would also include proofs and calculations that were relevant to the new ideas.   The mischievous mathematician would often develop a new theorem, construct a proof, and then issue a challenge to other mathematicians to prove his theorems.   Fermat's game playing often made him a nuisance to other mathematicians who did not appreciate his methods. It was common for Fermat to announce a proof of some idea and not show the proof to anyone, perhaps receiving some sort of glee from the ability to stump other "geniuses." Fermat wrote a similar note about what would later be known as his Last Theorem.
 Loosely translated, Fermat's statement was that the equation x^n + y^n = z^n has no nontrivial solutions for x, y, and z when n is greater than two.   Fermat then boasted that he had a beautiful proof for the theorem, but the margin could not contain it.   This statement would plague the mathematical community for three centuries to come, and it would also earn Fermat a position as one of the greatest mathematicians in history.
 Fermat died in 1665 from an illness, and his work was published by his eldest son in 1670.The world of mathematics was destined to change.

Simon Singh,Fermat's Enigma, New York (1997), p. 44

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