It’s a mathematical problem that had bamboozled the best brains for three centuries.
Now a British mathematician has been recognised with one of the discipline’s top prizes for solving Fermat’s Last Theorem back in 1994.
The award comes with a cool six million Norwegian Krone (£495,000) proving that being good at maths certainly pays.
Sir Andrew Wiles, 62 has been awarded the Abel Prize by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters for an achievement that academy described as ‘an epochal moment for mathematics’.
He will pick up the award and cheque from Crown Prince Haakon of Norway in Oslo in May.
Sir Andrew, currently a professor at Oxford University’s Mathematical Institute, said: ‘It is a tremendous honour to receive the Abel Prize and to join the previous laureates who have made such outstanding contributions to the field.
‘Fermat’s equation was my passion from an early age, and solving it gave me an overwhelming sense of fulfillment.
‘It has always been my hope that my solution of this age-old problem would inspire many young people to take up mathematics and to work on the many challenges of this beautiful and fascinating subject.’
The academy said Sir Andrew was awarded the prize ‘for his stunning proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem by way of the modularity conjecture for semistable elliptic curves, opening a new era in number theory.’
Cambridge-born Sir Andrew made his breakthrough in 1994, while working at Princeton, and he published the proof one year later.
First formulated by the French mathematician Pierre de Fermat in 1637, the theorem states: There are no whole number solutions to the equation xn + yn = zn when n is greater than 2.
Sir Andrew used many 20th-century techniques not available to Fermat – from number theory and algebraic geometry such as the category of schemes and Iwasawa theory – to come up with the proof.
It is over 150 pages long and consumed seven years of the mathematician’s research time.
Sir Andrew has previously described Monday 19 September 1994, when he found the solution to the numerical conundrum, as ‘the most important moment of [his]working life.’
He said he found a solution ‘so indescribably beautiful… so simple and so elegant’ to conclude his work.
His previous accolades include the Rolf Schock Prize, the Ostrowski Prize, the Wolf Prize, the Royal Medal of the Royal Society, the US National Academy of Science’s Award in Mathematics, and the Shaw Prize. He was knighted in 2000.
In its announcement of the award, Academy said: ‘Andrew J Wiles is one of very few mathematicians – if not the only one – whose proof of a theorem has made international headline news.
‘In 1994 he cracked Fermat’s Last Theorem which, at the time, was the most famous and long-running unsolved problem in the subject’s history.
‘Wiles’ proof was not only the high point of his career – and an epochal moment for mathematics – but also the culmination of a remarkable personal journey that began three decades earlier.’
The Abel Prize was created in 2002 and is named after Norwegian mathematician Niels Henrik Abel, who died in 1829.
Awarded annually, it was jointly won last year by John F Nash Jr, the US mathematician and economist – who was the subject of the 2001 movie A Beautiful Mind – and Canadian-born mathematician Louis Nirenberg.
Previous British winners include Edinburgh University academic Sir Michael Atiyah who shared the prize in 2004 with American Isadore Singer for their work on what is known as the Atiyah-Singer theorem.