By Alex Tabarrok
Here is one of my all time favorite documentaries, the 45 minute Fermat’s Last Theorem made by Simon Singh and John Lynch for the BBC in 1996. I’ve watched it many times and every time I am moved by unforgettable moments.
The plainspoken Goro Shimura talking of his friend Yutaka Taniyama, “he was not a very careful person as a mathematician, he made a lot of mistakes but he made mistakes in a good direction.” “I tried to imitate him,” he says sadly, “but I found out that it is very difficult to make good mistakes.” Shimura continues to be troubled by his friend’s suicide in 1958.
And then there is Andrew Wiles, the frail knight who for seven lonely years pursues the proof that has ensorcelled him since childhood. He announces the proof to the world, is featured on the front page of the New York Times and in People Magazine, he has the respect and admiration of his colleagues and then he discovers the proof is wrong. He works another year trying to fix it but every time he patches one area another fault line opens up. Even speaking of it now you can see and hear his utter despair. It is not too much to imagine that he was on the verge of a breakdown. Unforgettable.