23 February 2008

"The Proof" That I'm a Nerd

Well, once again, one of my Saturday posts is just going to be me telling you about whatever Julie Rehmeyer's written in the Science News "Math Trek" feature this week. This time around, it's Sophie Germain. She's a really interesting figure in the history of math (and especially the history of gender bias in STEM fields), so I encourage you to check out the story for that very good reason on its own merits.

That said, I felt particularly compelled to point this article out because one of the interviewees is a bit hard on Legendre, Germain's supposed mentor. I spent the entire frustrating day Friday solving a neutron transport problem using a method that Legendre is in small part responsible for, albeit very indirectly (the P-N method expands the angular neutron flux in Legendre polynomials), so I couldn't pass up the opportunity stick it to him in my pathetically insignificant way. (I wonder what portion of all blog content has that general M.O.? You gotta assume it's a pretty decent chunk.)

Anyway, if you check out that article, you'll see that it involves Germain's efforts to tackle Fermat's last theorem. And I can't mention Fermat's last theorem without pointing you toward my favorite episode of Nova: "The Proof." Seriously, if you want to find out (or be reminded) that math can be full of drama and intrigue and heartache, please check it out.

Here's a little taste. I admit that it doesn't make thrilling reading, but I swear these guys are captivating when they tell the story. I don't know who any of them are (well, except Wiles, and only because he proved the theorem), but it's fascinating to watch people with such a depth of passion talk about their trade. Honestly, sometimes it's even funny. You've gotta picture this as a series of talking heads interviews being cut in and out of:

JOHN COATES: The name of the lectures that he announced was simply "Elliptic Curves and Modular Forms." There was no mention of Fermat's last theorem.

KEN RIBET: Well, I was at this conference on L functions and elliptic curves, and it was kind of a standard conference and all of the people were there. Didn't seem to be anything out of the ordinary, until people started telling me that they'd been hearing weird rumors about Andrew Wiles's proposed series of lectures. I started talking to people and I got more and more precise information. I have no idea how it was spread.

PETER SARNAK: Not from me. Not from me.

JOHN CONWAY: Whenever any piece of mathematical news had been in the air, Peter would say, "Oh, that's nothing. Wait until you hear the big news. There's something big going to break."

PETER SARNAK: Maybe some hints, yeah.

ANDREW WILES: People would ask me, leading up to my lectures, what exactly I was going to say. And I said, "Well, come to my lecture and see."

KEN RIBET: It's a very charged atmosphere. A lot of the major figures of arithmetical, algebraic geometry were there. Richard Taylor and John Coates. Barry Mazur.

BARRY MAZUR: Well, I'd never seen a lecture series in mathematics like that before. What was unique about those lectures were the glorious ideas, how many new ideas were presented, and the constancy of its dramatic build-up. It was suspenseful until the end.

1 comment:

Kyle Matthew Oliver said...

Apparently Rehmeyer's piece was a two-parter. The second part can be found here.