I am not a mathematician, but I have always been in awe of math.
In 1994, John F. Nash Jr. received the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economic Sciences for his doctoral dissertation about “non-cooperative games,” otherwise known as game theory. Game theory is the study of decision and deliberation in terms of economics and mathematics. In 1998, Sylvia Nasar chronicled Nash’s life in a biography, and Ron Howard celebrated it again in the Academy Award Best Picture “A Beautiful Mind,” in which Russell Crowe portrayed Nash’s brilliant but also schizophrenic mind.
In 1637, Pierre de Fermat conjectured a theorem in his journal: “There is no whole solution for xn + yn = zn where n is bigger than 2.” This concise theorem resembles the simple Pythagorean equation that everyone has learned to love in middle school: x2 + y2 = z2 . While the brevity and resemblance to that of a simple and easily proven equation might make this problem seem easy, it eventually became the ultimate task for every mathematician in the world. For more than three and a half centuries, no one had been able to put forth thorough proof for this theorem. Interestingly enough, all de Fermat ever wrote about it was: “I have a truly marvelous demonstration of this proposition which this margin is too narrow to contain.” It is now known as Fermat’s last theorem.
Different mathematicians from different countries in different timeframes attempted to solve this seemingly easy, yet unsolvable, problem for over 350 years. It wasn’t until 1995 that Andrew Wiles, a Princeton University professor, finally presented a complete proof to the theorem. His contribution was so significant that at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Berlin in 1998, Wiles received a silver plaque from the International Mathematical Union. He only fell short of a Fields Medal (considered the Nobel Prize of Mathematics) because one of the criteria maintained the recipients must be under 40. Wiles was 41 when he completed the proof.
I always thought I liked math. I loved solving math riddles in elementary school, during recess, and after classes. But growing up, I gradually became more pragmatic. I did not see the practical application in these numbers and figures, I failed to understand how it affected my life realistically, and as a result, I lost touch with the subject. Yet, I still retained the immense respect and appreciation for mathematicians. Perhaps the reason this subject fails to grasp the attention of the masses is because of the increasing level of intensity and abstractness as one goes higher in mathematical study. But in every notable logical problem, there is a story that elevates it to a level of meaning.
In every math problem exists a trait, a piece of history or a background story, that separates the problem from pure logics and numbers. It appeals more to our pathos and emotions and gives meaning beyond mathematics. In John F. Nash Jr.’s case, it is a story of a genius struggling to balance his ingenuity and his insanity — it is a story of how we ought to treat the mentally ill and disabled.
The story of deciphering the German Enigma machine not only sheds light on the brilliant and beautiful life of Alan Turing and his poetic departure, but also speaks volumes about societal priorities and prejudices. With Andrew Wiles, it is a story of perseverance, of overcoming impossibility and conquering the high seas, of eight years of working in near-isolation and of a childhood dream coming true. Wiles said, “I had this rare privilege of being able to pursue in my adult life, what had been my childhood dream.”
Math is as human as it gets. Just as art does not have to make sense, sometimes you do not need to fully understand the logics behind math problems to appreciate the beauty of the craft.
Duy Mai is a freshman in School of Foreign Service. The Worldernist appears every other Thursday on thehoya.com.