MATHEMATICAL FICTION:

a list compiled by Alex Kasman (College of Charleston)

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The Last Theorem (2008)
Buzz Mauro
(click on names to see more mathematical fiction by the same author)
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Note: This work of mathematical fiction is recommended by Alex for literati.

A depressed music professor ponders Fermat's Last Theorem and the implications of its proof by Andrew Wiles.

Like many of Mauro's other stories, this one is very well written, focusing not so much on plot as on the sympathetic characters with unusual quirks in situations involving coincidence, sorrow, illness, death and spontaneous sexual encounters. However, this is my favorite because of some of the big ideas that appear in it as well.

Note that Fermat's Last Theorem (the statement that there are no positive, whole number solutions to the equation xn+yn=zn when n>2) is famous for being a mathematical statement that is very simple to make but notoriously difficult to prove or disprove. In fact, it was an open problem for hundreds of years until Andrew Wiles (building on the work of many others and with some last minute help from Richard Taylor) finally completed a proof in 1994.

Unlike some other authors, who write about Fermat's Last Theorem without even understanding what it says (like Stieg Larson) or misrepresent its proof (like Arthur C. Clarke and Frederik Pohl), Mauro seems to actually get it. His terminology in the first sentence is just slightly off1, suggesting that he is not himself an expert on the subject, but aside from such semantics, his mathematical remarks are all "spot on".

There are a number of mathematical metaphors throughout the story which (for me at least) give the story its meaning. Two of them, in particular, struck me as being both beautiful and quite novel. I encourage you to read the entire story, if you can obtain a copy, but feel compelled to share these two passages with you in case you are not able to do so:

(quoted from The Last Theorem)

But then, too, does no one ever acknowledge - anyone besides Gerard, whose mind seems prone to taking sides against itself lately - even the slightest nostalgia for the days pre-proof, when the neverness was still in doubt? When it was still possible, in other words, that someone might show up someday with a couple of perfect 293rd powers that could be shown by simple arithmetic to add up to another one?
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Why can a great conjecture not be like a great symphony, for which no one expects an explanation? Beethoven's Ninth, to choose an obvious example, i nothing if not a grand conjecture, an accumulation of harmonies and counterpoints, each deepening and complicating the mystery of their somehow stirring entanglement, a mystery proposed and left for us to ponder. If a masterpiece were more answer than question, no one would feel the need to listen to it more than once.

(quoted from The Last Theorem)

Love's sweet algorithm: step by step, courtship, marriage, family. Today, perhaps not, nothing preordained: a smiling couple of twenty-year-olds entwined on a bench fly a different trajectory, not so sure where they'll land. But back then it was possible to see the future, the parabolic arc. That was your job, in fact. Lay out your steps beginning to end before you bother to take the first: you'll marry, have a child, another, and a life of some kind will result. The problem is so simple to state, it's difficult to shake the conviction that it will be easy to solve.

Mathematics shows up explicitly throughout much of the story as we see the senior music professor pursuing mathematics as a hobby. In addition, I wonder if there is an implicit mathematical reference in the discussion of how the professor feels about the upcoming concert by his student, whom he feels will eclipse his own reputation, since mathematicians are frequently shown in such situations in fiction.

Published in Tampa Review 36 (2008).


1 To be honest, I am not personally an expert on number theory or arithmetic geometry either, but I know enough to spot some problems with the first sentence of this story:

(quoted from The Last Theorem)

The Taniyama-Shimura Conjecture...states that every elliptic equation can be parameterized by a modular form.

First of all, I'm quite certain that it is the elliptic curve (not "equation") which is parameterized. Also, "parametrized" is standard in place of "parameterized." Moreover, I think that the connection with the modular form (which is that it must be an eigenform) is trickier than a question of parametrization at all. And, am I not right that the correspondence does not involve all elliptic curves but rather only elliptic curves over the ring of rational numbers? In fact, I would say that to be technically accurate the first sentence should read

"The Taniyama-Shimura Conjecture...states that every elliptic curve over the rationals can be parametrized by two modular functions of the same level."

If someone reading this truly is an expert, please tell me if this is correct.

(Note: This is just one work of mathematical fiction from the list. To see the entire list or to see more works of mathematical fiction, return to the Homepage.)

Works Similar to The Last Theorem
According to my `secret formula', the following works of mathematical fiction are similar to this one:
  1. The Arnold Proof by Jessica Francis Kane
  2. Life After Genius by M. Ann Jacoby
  3. Continuums by Robert Carr
  4. Satisfactory Proof by Cynthia Morrison Phoel
  5. No One You Know by Michelle Richmond
  6. Continuity by Buzz Mauro
  7. Orpheus Lost: A Novel by Janette Turner Hospital
  8. Diary of a Bad Year by John Maxwell Coetzee
  9. Zero by Buzz Mauro
  10. Long Division by Buzz Mauro
Ratings for The Last Theorem:
RatingsHave you seen/read this work of mathematical fiction? Then click here to enter your own votes on its mathematical content and literary quality or send me comments to post on this Webpage.
Mathematical Content:
4/5 (1 votes)
..
Literary Quality:
5/5 (1 votes)
.

Categories:
Genre
MotifAcademia, Proving Theorems, Music,
TopicAlgebra/Arithmetic/Number Theory, Real Mathematics,
MediumShort Stories,

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(Maintained by Alex Kasman, College of Charleston)