Tuesday, July 29, 2008


Okay, this was a totally amazing book. I was thrilled to read it. The thing about this book for me was how it made me totally appreciate what J. does as an occupation - - statistics, playing with numbers, making code, etc...etc... Let me just say, for the first time in four years I was actually having math conversations with my husband. Amazing!

Unfortunately, I had to return the book TODAY (or pay a late fee, which I was not willing to sacrifice) and so my thoughts might be a bit choppy because I'm going on shorthanded notes here. This won't be so much an essay as it is a bunch of my favorite stuff all globbed together.

My FAVORITE quote from the ENTIRE book:

"There is no place in the world for ugly math." (p.171)
I thought it was hilarious at the beginning of the book where it says it was a "high risk decision to work in isolation" because it made me think "How high risk can a math profession really be?" But then in reading the amazing history linked to this one problem just made that riskiness come alive. I was totally nervous for Wiles when that other guy wrote in that there was no truth to Fermat's Therom while Wiles was in the process of trying to solve the one error in his original proof. Crazy!
It was also profound to me how we take numbers for granted. Numbers are just a normal part of life, but in reading this book you come to realize that everything had to be discovered. I mean, it's pretty simple that there is ONE of something and if you add ONE more something to that something then you get TWO somethings. But, someone had to figure that all out and then discover that there is an infinite amount of numbers.
J. and I also got a laugh at the story of Gombaud and his gambling game where he asked Pascal to use probability to figure out who got the money (since the game had to end abruptly or something). Ha! J. and I have lots of discussions about probability (have you played Settler's of Catan??). :-)
I was intrigued with the history of the first library and then the burning of books at the descent of the Dark Ages. Reading that made me reflect on a couple of things. First of all, the idea that all books that were not Christian were to be destroyed led me to think about all the good books out there and how we've been asked to seek the "best" books for knowledge and study. Second, I was reminded of the descent of the apostasy as well which I believe occurred all around the same time (historians, correct me if I'm wrong!).
"Fermat didn't know very much. . . I tried tof ind his lost solution by using the kind of methods he might have used." (p71) TJED? Go straight to the source! Learn from how the great philosophers, musicians, scientists, etc... learned.
Another favorite:
"The art of number theory is so abstract that it is frighteningly easy to wander off the path of logic and be completely unaware that one has strayed into absurdity." (p131)
I was also impressed with the support Wiles received and felt from his wife and children. "Whenever the pressure became too great he would turn to his family. . . 'The only wya I could relax was when I was with my children.'" (p237) Despite his passion and obsession with this therom, his marriage and family stayed strong. It's interesting that I just recently watched the movie Amadeus. Again, I looked at the family life and watched the polar opposite happen to Mozart than that which occurred with Wiles. I don't think it's an easy task to be the wife of a genius such as Mozart or Wiles or Einstein. I mean, Wiles knew from the age of TEN, "I knew I had to solve it." (p6) A passion like that must put some strain on the family. Which I think is why his wife (Nada?) was excited to receive his final proof on her birthday! What a joy it must be to know your husband #1 fullfilled his dream, and #2 would now be free of the thing that attracted most of his attention! I would not be such a patient wife. :-)
I can also understand his "mixed feelings" at finally solving the problem for all the same reasons. To be so familiar and involved in an obsession for that long, it would be very hard to let go and let the rest of the world "have at it."
Overall, I thought this book was just fantastic. So much history. So much knowledge gleaned. So much excitement in discovering how numbers really are cool! :-) I was impressed with the thoughts on curiosity (p. 147) and it made me wonder what I'm curious about? What are my children curious about? Am I fostering that curiosity or squelching it? What did the mothers of these genius chidren do to keep that curiosity alive? (Read Linda Eyre's Teaching Children Joy) Wiles later says, "I was just curious," and look at all he accomplished by just being curious!

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