|Mathematicians know the feeling of trying to prove something you
really believe to be true, but has never been proven. There is
pleasure in doing this, like solving a puzzle, but also frustration
and painful obsession. No other story conveys this as clearly as this
fantasy in which the devil is challenged to prove (or disprove)
Fermat's last theorem in 24 hours. Among the more interesting things
in the story are the way the Devil becomes interested in mathematics
although he had no interest before, and the way Flagg's wife reacts
when the Devil and Flagg begin talking about math. (Spouses of
mathematicians everywhere must feel the same way.)
story appears in Fantasia Mathematica. Though
I enjoy this story, and its discussion of some of the details, I think
I prefer the really short alternative version that was published as The Devil a
Mathematician Would Be.
I have typed in the story here [Sorry, link is broken. -Alex 2009].
I had searched a few years ago for an online copy, not finding it, decided to type it in. Last night, I discovered there actually are several copies now found by google search. Anyway, there is mine. One of my all time favorite stories!
This little story is very powerful in illustrating concisely and clearly the culture of curiosity driven research, it moves from instrumental to engaged in an amusing manner, and the **sigh** from Flaggs' wife as the culture takes hold is a delight. If you want to explain to someone about the characteristics of curisoty driven mathematical exploration it woudl be hard to do it in a more engaging - and convincing- manner. A classic.
Robert W. Franson
I first encountered this as a teenager, and always think of it fondly.
A film version entitled "Matematik I Chert" (which translates as "Mathematician and Devil") was made in Russian, directed by S. Raitburg and released by CentrNauchFilm in 1972. (See screenshot below.)
Bikas Kanti Sarkar
One of the best stories I have ever read