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Lessons from a mathematician

October 31, 2012

Lessons from a mathematician – Fermat’s last theorem

Somewhat by accident I was listen to BBC Radio 4 last week, yes I did say Radio 4.  Until  last week it’s wasn’t something that I’d done much of before, but will certainly do so in the future. I tuned into Melvyn Bragg ‘In our Time’ discussing Fermat’s last theorem.

Fermat’s conjecture

Let me start off by saying, No, I have no idea what this theorem is about, I’m no wiser now than when I started listen to the programme – for those reading this who posess the keen and agile mind of a mathematician, or are simply inquisitive –

Fermat’s theorem stated that there were no three positive integers that could resolve the equation ‘a’ to the n’th power + ‘b’ to the n’th power = ‘c’ to the n’th power (an + bn = cn).

Fermat made this claim in 1637, stating he had resolved his own ‘puzzle’. As a standalone theorem it has no useful application. The theorem has contributed to cryptography and the development of encryption used in, for example our bank cards, however it won’t cure anyone of some terrible illness, it won’t in some way contribute to world peace – so why write a blog about something that I don’t understand and have zero appreciation for?

I feel honoured

One of the guests in the show (Professor Marcus du Sautoy) stated there was no utility being proposed in solving Fermat’s conjecture and yet with unashamed joy he stated “I feel honoured to have been alive, I remember the announcement …. … wow, I was alive when that was proved, that is amazing..”

For those that enjoy detail, the puzzle was solved in 1995 by Andrew Wiles, some  358 years after it was posed.

Enthusiasm that captivates

What struck me was the the enthusiasm Du Sautoy had for this, the joy and celebration for knowledge itself, not for what it can do, simply for its own existence.  His enthusiasm was captivating and invoked in me a smile of appreciation.

When was the last time that you or I embraced that joy of knowledge? Can you pinpoint that moment of delight, did you think “wow, I was alive when ‘it’ happened”?  Du Sautoy remembered the announcement itself, even down to where he was working – can you do the same?  Many tragic events are imprinted on our minds, world news events, individual family events, it seems all too easy to remember somewhat vividly these tragedies, but do we grab hold of and embrace those moments of joy?

I wish more were like you!

Well done if you do – I applaud you, I wish more if us were like you.

In most ways I’m a practical person, I like to see results, I like to be able to touch outcomes – yet this simple embracing of knowledge for its own sake, without reason or purpose captivated me: it held an attraction and charm which seemed disconnected from how I view myself … and I rather liked it.

Postpositive paradigm

On explaining it to my youngest daughter I am reliably informed this makes me verge on adopting  a ‘postpositive’ paradigm – but perhaps that’s a blog for another day!

7 Comments leave one →
  1. November 4, 2012 10:21 am

    Really interesting blog. Reminds me of a quote I saw once: The beginning of knowledge is the discovery of something we do not understand

  2. November 4, 2012 10:30 am

    Thanks Ross – I like your quote, it’s the joy of the journey of discovery that’s exciting.

  3. November 5, 2012 9:48 am

    Nice piece – why do we in L&D insist on trying to create the moment of joy in classrooms?


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