Documentary Tidbits

The Historic Photo

The announcement of the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem is a momentous event in the documentary, but the problem was how to show it on screen. Fortunately, one of the mathematicians who attended the lecture when Andrew Wiles revealed his proof was sharp enough to grab a historic photograph. Professor Peter Goddard caught the moment in one of the most charming pictures in the history of mathematics. You can see it and find out a little bit more about the story at the Plus website.

Andrew Wiles – not a fan of TV

Professor Wiles, having being overwhelmed by the press attention, was not looking forward to the prospect of a TV documentary. One of the most persuasive arguments was that this was a unique opportunity to create something that would inspire a new generation of mathematicians. Eventually he agreed to set aside the time required, which turned out to be three days of discussion prior to filming and five half days of filming. I suspect that Andrew was anxious about what the final film would look like, but in end he was delighted with the documentary. And that has been one of the great outcomes – the public enjoyed the programme, but mathematicians have praised it as well.

Dark Mansion Story

“You enter the first room of the mansion and it’s completely dark. You stumble around bumping into the furniture, but gradually you learn where each piece of furniture is. Finally, after six months or so, you find the light switch, you turn it on, and suddenly it’s all illuminated. You can see exactly where you were. Then you move into the next room and spend another six months in the dark. So each of these breakthroughs, while sometimes they’re momentary, sometimes over a period of a day or two, they are the culmination of — and couldn’t exist without — the many months of stumbling around in the dark that precede them.” This is how Andrew Wiles describes the process of doing mathematics. This was a crucial tale for the documentary because it conjured up such strong imagery. The story appears at the start of the documentary and the imagery returns later, whenever Wiles is in trouble.

The Plot Twist

The story of Andrew Wiles and Fermat’s Last Theorem is wonderful for many reasons, and one of them is that is contains a major plot twist. After seven years of secret research, Wiles announces his proof. The mathematical community rejoices. Just when it seems that the story has come to an end, everything falls apart – there is a flaw in the proof. This is akin to typical horror movie, whereby the hero slays the monster, and just as he turns his back the monster comes back to life for one last attack. Fortunately for Wiles, he slayed the monster at the second attempt and emerged triumphant. From a director’s point of view, it is a huge bonus to have such a major plot twist two thirds of the way through a documentary. I am glad that the original proof was flawed.