a math riot
Date: Thu, 8 Jul 93 19:52:56 PDT
Subject: a math riot
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Rich Schaefer)
From: email@example.com (Mike Fleischner)
After last year's Bulls victory riots,
Chicagoans are understandably wary and defensive about any cause for
celebration. This article appeared in yesterday's Tribune:
News Item (June 23)-Mathematicians worldwide were excited and pleased today by
the announcement that Princeton University professor Andrew Wiles had finally
proved Fermat's Last Theorem, a 356-year-old problem said to be the most famous
in the field.
Yes, admittedly, there was rioting and vandalism last week during the
celebration. A few bookstores had windows smashed and shelves stripped, and
vacant lots glowed with burning piles of old dissertations. But overall we can
feel relief that it was nothing- nothing- compared to the outbreak of exuberant
thuggery that occurred in 1984 after Louis deBranges finally proved the
"Math hooligans are the worst," said a Chicago Police Department spokesman.
"But the city learned from the Bieberbach riots. We were ready for them this
When word hit Wednesday that Fermat's Last Theorem had fallen, a massive show
of force from law enforcement at universities all around the country headed off
a repeat of the festive looting sprees that have become the traditional
accompaniment to triumphant breakthroughs in higher mathematics.
Mounted police throughout Hyde Park kept crowds of delirious wizards at the
University of Chicago from tipping cars over on the midway as they first did in
1976 when Wolfgang Hakel and Kenneth Appel cracked the long-vexing Four-Color
Problem. Incidents of textbook-throwing and citizens being pulled from their
cars and humiliated with difficult story problems last week were described by
the university's math department chairman Bob Zimmer as "isolated."
Zimmer said, "Most of the celebrations were orderly and peaceful, But there
will always be a few-usually graduate students-who use any excuse to cause
trouble and steal. These are not true fans of Andrew Wiles."
Wiles himself pleaded for calm even as he offered up the long elusive proof
that there is no solution to the equation x^n + y^n = z^n when n is a whole
number greater than two, as Pierre de Fermat first proposed in the 17th
Century. "Party hard but party safe," he said, echoing the phrase he had
repeated often in interviews with scholarly journals as he came closer and
closer to completing his proof.
Some authorities tried to blame the disorder on the provocative taunting of
Japanese mathematician Yoichi Miyaoka. Miyaoka thought he had proved Fermat's
Last Theorem in 1988, but his claims did not bear up under scrutiny of
professional referees, leading some to suspect that the fix was in. And ever
since, as Wiles chipped away steadily at the Fermat problem, Miyaoka scoffed
that there would be no reason to board up windows near universities any time
soon; that God wanted Miyaoka to prove it.
In a peculiar sidelight, Miyaoka recently took the trouble to secure a U.S.
trademark on the equation "x^n + y^n = z^n" as well as on the now-ubiquitous
expression, "Take that, Fermat!" Ironically, in defeat, he stands to make a
good deal of money on cap and T-shirt sales.
This was no walk-in-the-park proof for Wiles. He was dogged, in the early
going, by sniping publicity that claimed he was seen puttering late one night
doing set theory in a New Jersey library when he either should have been
sleeping, critics said, or focusing on arithmetic algebraic geometry for the
proving work ahead.
"Set theory is my hobby, it helps me relax," was his angry explanation. The
next night, he channeled his fury and came up with five critical steps in his
proof. Not a record, but close.
There was talk that he thought he could do it all by himself, especially when
he candidly referred to University of California mathematician Kenneth Ribet as
part of his "supporting cast," when most people in the field knew that without
Ribet's 1986 proof definitively linking the Taniyama Conjecture to Fermat's
Last Theorem, Wiles would be just another frustrated guy in a tweed jacket
teaching calculus to freshmen.
His travails made the ultimate victory that much more explosive for math buffs.
When the news arrived, many were already wired from caffeine comsumed at daily
colloquial teas, and they took to the streets en masse shouting, "Obvious!
Yessss! It was obvious!"
The law cannot hope to stop such enthusiasm, only to control it. Still, one has
to wonder what the connection is between wanton pillaging and a mathematical
proof, no matter how long-awaited and subtle.
The Victory Over Fermat rally, held on a cloudless day in front of a crowd of
30,000 (police estimate: 150,000) was pleasantly peaceful. Signs unfurled in
the audience proclaimed Wiles the greatest mathematician of all time, though
partisans of Euclid, Descartes, Newton and C.F. Gauss and others argued the
A warmup act, The Supertheorists, delighted the crowd with a ragged song, "It
Was Never Less Than Probable, My Friend," which included such gloating, barbed
verses as- "I had my proof all ready/But then I did a choke-a/Made liberal
assumptions/Hi! I'm Yoichi Miyaoka."
In the speeches from the stage, there was talk of a dynasty, specifically that
next year Wiles will crack the great unproven Riemann Hypothesis ("Rie-peat!
Rie-peat!" the crowd cried), and after that the Prime-Pair Problem, the
Goldbach Conjecture (Minimum Goldbach," said one T-shirt) and so on.
They couldn't just let him enjoy his proof. Not even for one day. Math people.
Go figure 'em.
© 1993 Peter Langston