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Fermat's Last Theorem


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Amir D. Aczel, a visiting scholar in the history of science at Harvard, earned both his B.A. in mathematics and master of sciences degree from the University of California at Berkeley, and a Ph.D. from the University of Oregon. His books have been translated into fifteen languages.


Famous‘and infamous‘as an editor and teacher, Lish's stock in trade as a writer is an in-your-face eccentricity. His fiction flaunts autobiographical details, and here, with his usual audacity, Lish takes the tragedy of his wife's long dying and fashions it into an unnerving epistolary novel. A protagonist called Gordon Lish reflects on his wife's death in a series of letters addressed to the Mercy Persons of her church, who provided succor and helped donate the "mechanism'' that for a time sustained life as she lay paralyzed, equipment that the widower now refuses to return. The letters are phrased in curiously fussy and old-fashioned locutions and begin with scrupulous politeness‘even when "Lish'' is pleading with a court clerk to stop sending his wife summonses for jury duty. This spouse is soon, however, revealed as having gone off his rocker, as he contradicts his earlier praise, casts aspersions on the Mercy Persons ("a more ruinous bunch of slatterns I think I shall never see'') and makes vicious accusations about each of the volunteers in turn. Gradually, it emerges that "Lish'' may have been responsible for his wife's death; he certainly killed her canary, Wilhelm, in the bathtub, and maybe her hermit crab, Fred, and he is terrified about an accident to the dish on which "Mrs. Lish'' demanded her morphine suppositories. He also reveals that he is "seeing'' two ladies (one bakes cakes, the other raises finches) and that he has hated his father ever since a certain day in a boat. By the end, it's obvious that "Gordon Lish'' is loony, psychotic, deranged. Readers will have to determine for themselves whether this book is a macabre romp or an exercise in excruciatingly bad taste. (Nov.)

"Aczel does a superb job...A mathematical bonbon of a book."
"Aczel maps the strange, beautiful byways of modern mathematical thought in ways the layperson can grasp."
"It employs a staggering range of abstract devices, which Mr. Aczel is a dab hand at explaining: Abelian varieties, Galois representations, automorphic forms, and on and on."

It is extremely unusual for an advance in pure mathematics to draw the attention of the press worldwide. However, there was a great furor in 1993 when Andrew Wiles announced he had derived a proof of Fermat's Last Theorem, which had defeated mathematicians for more than 300 years. This brief book, written by a statistician rather than a number theorist, presents for the general public the long historical background, the awkward temporary retraction by Wiles, and his final triumph in 1995. The human drama is well presented, but the discussion of the mathematics itself is less successful. The author makes a good start in dealing with the fundamentals but leaps too quickly for lay readers into more complex ideas laden with jargon that is only partially explained. The book might have worked better if the author had taken several dozen additional pages to work through the mathematical concepts in more detail. For larger math collections.‘Jack W. Weigel, Univ. of Michigan Lib., Ann Arbor

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