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The Wolfskehl Prize

The Daily Telegraph

Surrounded by portraits of the Hanoverian kings Wiles shook hands with Wagner, accepted the prize, and the audience applauded wildly. His speech described how he had heard about Fermat’s Last Theorem and the Wolfskehl Prize when he was ten years old, and how he had become obsessed by the search for a proof. I have known Wiles since he completed his proof in 1995, and his passion for the Last Theorem has not diminished in the slightest. Each time he recalls how he completed the proof his voice becomes hesitant, reflecting the emotion he feels for the problem.

Although the crucial breakthroughs in the proof occurred during a secret calculation which required eight years of working in secrecy and isolation, Wiles concluded his speech by acknowledging the work of his peers. His proof involved many of the greatest ideas of the last four decades, and is a vindication of modern mathematical techniques. In order to solve an ancient problem, he had caste these ideas in a new light, and the hope is that Wiles’ innovative approach will offer in-roads towards cracking a whole series of other hitherto unsolved problems.

Although Wiles actually finished his proof in 1995, the Göttingen Academy demanded two years of verification before awarding the prize. During the intervening period Wiles has attempted to concentrate on other research, but Fermat has continued to dominate his life. After the ceremony, Wiles told me that he hopes the awarding of the Wolfskehl Prize will officially mark the end of the Fermat’s Last Theorem, and allow him to pursue other problems.

As for the members of the Academy responsible for prize, there were obvious signs of relief. The painstaking task of examining hundreds of entries has interrupted their research, but even now there is no guarantee that enthusiastic amateurs will not give up. Wiles’ proof is too complicated to be Fermat’s original calculation (if he had one?) and so many mathematicians continue to search for a seventeenth century proof and each week one or two letters arrive at the Academy.