British mathematician solves Fermat's Last Theorem

The French mathematician Pierre de Fermat famously noted in Fermat's Last Theorem he had proven the equation xn + yn = zn cannot have a whole number solution when n is greater than 2. But he took his proof to the grave. That is, until British math professor Andrew Wiles cracked the 300-year-old problem. Photo courtesy Smithsonian Institute

OSLO, Norway, March 17 (UPI) -- A British mathematician has solved the 300-year-old math problem known as Fermat's Last Theorem, and will claim a \$700,000 prize for his work.

Andrew Wiles, 62, was a professor at Princeton in 1994, when he and a protege, Richard Taylor, a student at the school, submitted their proof of the math problem, known in math circles for centuries.

Pierre de Fermat, a French mathematician, famously wrote in 1632 about a problem with roots back to ancient Greece. The Greek mathematician Diophantus first stated the problem itself. A New York Times review of a 1996 best seller sharing the title "Fermat's Last Theorem," describes the problem this way:

"Everybody knew that it is possible to break down a squared number into two squared components, as in 5 squared equals 3 squared plus 4 squared (or, 25 = 9 + 16). What Fermat saw was that it was impossible to do that with any number raised to a greater power than 2. Put differently, the formula xn + yn = zn has no whole number solution when n is greater than 2."

Fermat said he had managed to find the proof to back up his theory, but tantalizingly, he took the secret with him to the grave, leaving centuries of math wonks to try retracing his steps.

Enter Wiles, who first encountered the riddle as a 10-year-old boy, when he checked out a math book from the library. Wiles told NPR he was fascinated by the puzzle and became obsessed with proving it.

Princeton, where Wiles worked when he proved the theory with Taylor, said in a news release Wiles began working on the problem in secret in 1986.

Wiles used calculations in three different branches of mathematics -- modular forms, elliptical curves, and Galois representations -- to do it.

For his work, Wiles has won the Abel Prize in mathematics, sometimes known as the "Nobel Prize in math." It carries a purse of about \$715,000 and is awarded by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters.

According to the Abel Committee, "few results have as rich a mathematical history and as dramatic a proof as Fermat's Last Theorem."