Fermat’s Last Theorem in pop culture

Fermat’s Last Theorem in pop culture

by Simon Singh (Author of The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets)



What have Doctor Who, Star Trek, The Simpsons and Liz Hurley got in common?

Believe it or not, they are all obsessed with Fermat’s Last Theorem, the most notorious problem in the history of mathematics.

Before going any further, I should explain that Pierre de Fermat was a seventeenth century mathematician who claimed that a particular equation (xn + yn = zn) had no whole number solutions for n > 2. Three centuries later, this mathematical mystery has become famous, perhaps even glamorous, so much so that it has popped in books, films and TV shows.

For example, in “The Devil and Simon Flagg”, a short story written by Arthur Porges in 1954, the hero makes a deal with the Devil. Simon Flagg’s only hope of saving his soul is to pose a question that the Devil cannot answer, so he asks for a proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. After accepting defeat, the Devil says: “Do you know, not even the best mathematicians on other planets—all far ahead of yours—have solved it? Why, there’s a chap on Saturn — he looks something like a mushroom on stilts — who solves partial differential equations mentally; and even he’s given up.”

Fermat’s Last Theorem has also appeared in novels (e.g., The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson), in films (e.g., Bedazzled starring Elizabeth Hurley), in plays (e.g., Arcadia by Tom Stoppard) and in TV shows (e.g., Doctor Who – The Eleventh Hour).

Perhaps the theorem’s most famous cameo is in “The Royale”, an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Captain Jean-Luc Picard describes Fermat’s Last Theorem as “a puzzle we may neversolve.” However, Captain Picard was wrong and out of date, becausethe episode was set in the twenty-fourth century and transmitted in 1989, but the theorem wasactually proven in 1995.

Most surprising of all, Fermat’s Last Theorem appears not once, but twice in The Simpsons. I know this because I have written an entire book titled The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets, which explores the masses of mathematics that has appeared alongside Marge and Homer. You might never have noticed many equations in The Simpsons, but that is probably because they tend to appear for just a moment in the background, where they can only be spotted by eagle-eyed number nerds.

And who puts the mathematics in The Simpsons? There are several mathematicians on the writing team, including two with PhDs. Although they no longer study mathematics, they still love the subject and express their passion in their scripts.

So, if you have ever wondered what is the point of A level mathematics, then bear in mind that it could be just the thing you need in order to work on the world’s greatest TV show.

See The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets on Amazon

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