Zeroing in on a math puzzler : Pierre de Fermat was a French Lawyer of the 17th century who pursued math as a hobby. After his death, appraisals of his work revealed him to be a giant who had helped lay the foundation of calculus and probability theory.

Fermat also left behind a large body of what he called theorems. The general claims rest on chains of logic. Fermat, however, was something of a tease. He often asserted the truth of a proposition but gave no details.

Skeptical experts found to their surprise that many of his sketchy claims were, in fact, true.

The exception came to be known as Fermat's last theorem. Early in his career, around 1637, he had scribbled the equation in a book's margins, claiming a marvellous proof, but called the space too small for particulars. Over time, his reputation drove thousands of mathematicians to take on the problem.

Part of the appeal was basic. The simple equation, X raise to power n + y raise to the power n = z power of n, has just three elements but an infinite number of possible solutions. The challenge was to prove that none of those solutions work for four positive integers when ''n'' is greater than 2.

Leonhard Euler was the 18th-century Swiss mathematician who solved hundreds of knotty problems in acoustics, finance, navigation and many other fields.

In 1753, he announced that he had solved an aspect of Fermat's theorem. It was the first such advance in a century of grueling effort.

But after that, little progress was made, and top mathematicians came to see the riddle as irrelevant. Carl Gauss, a German savant of the 19tth century, called it an isolated claim of ''very little interest.''

Fascination with Fermat riddle nonetheless lingered among a subset of mathematics, professional and amateur.

The Essay on Mathematics, continues. The World Students Society thanks author William J. Broad.


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