A three-century-old mathematics problem known as Fermat’s Last Theorem first caught the attention of Andrew Wiles, now a professor at Oxford University, when he was 10 years old.
Now, his “stunning proof” that cracked the 358-year-old problem in 1994 has netted him the world’s top international prize for mathematics.
On Tuesday, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters awarded its Abel Prize for mathematics to Dr. Wiles for his work on the problem that had captivated the mathematician for much of his life.
“Few results have as rich a mathematical history and as dramatic a proof as Fermat’s Last Theorem,” the Abel Committee said of Wiles’ proof, which he completed while a professor at Princeton University.
The prize, worth 6 million Norwegian Krone ($700,000), is widely regarded as mathematics’ Nobel.
Explaining its decision, the committee noted that Wiles had “open[ed] a new era in number theory,” and developed new tools that have allowed researchers to make larger efforts to bring disparate branches of mathematics together, the Guardian reports.
Wiles said the theorem's seeming simplicity captivated him when he first read about it as a 10-year-old browsing the local library in Cambridge, England. As formulated by the French mathematician Pierre de Fermat in 1637, it states, “There are no whole number solutions to the equation xn +yn =zn when n is greater than 2.” [Editor's note: An earlier version misstated Fermat's theorem.]
Fermat had claimed to have proven the theorem himself but said the proof was too large to fit in the margin of his copy of Arithmetica, a text by the ancient Greek mathematician Diophantus, where he had written the problem.
“This problem captivated me,” Wiles told the Guardian. “What amazed me was that there were some unsolved problems that someone who was 10 years old could understand and even try,” he said, noting that he had tried repeatedly to solve it as a teenager.
Despite Fermat’s own claims, Wiles’ proof proved to be groundbreaking. “In fact,” The New York Times wrote in a review of a 1996 book about the theorem, “when Mr. Wiles finally did prove that the theorem is true, he used techniques that could not have been known to Fermat, so whether the thinker of the 17th century really did have a solution to his problem cannot be known."
To complete his proof, Wiles worked partly in secret beginning in 1986 while at Princeton, collaborating with his former student Richard Taylor, Princeton said in a statement on Wednesday.
“I knew from that moment that I would never let it go,” Wiles told the Abel Committee. “I had to solve it.”