April 1, 2016

Princeton’s Andrew Wiles Wins Abel Prize For “Stunning Proof” of Fermat’s Theorem

Andrew WilesAndrew Wiles, Oxford University mathematics professor and professor emeritus at Princeton, has received the 2016 Abel Prize from the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters for “opening a new era in number theory” in 1994 with his “stunning proof” of Fermat’s Last Theorem.

The most famous long-running unsolved problem in mathematics, Fermat’s Last Theorem was a problem that had stumped the brightest mathematicians in the world since it was first conjectured by French mathematician Pierre de Fermat in 1637. The theorem states that there cannot be any whole number solutions to the equation xn+yn=zn if n is greater than 2.

The 62-year-old Mr. Wiles was a professor in Princeton’s mathematics department from 1982 until 2011, before  moving to Oxford, U.K. He is the third Princeton-affiliated Abel Prize recipient in a row, following 2014 winner Yakov Sinai and last year’s winner the late John Nash, who shared the prize with Louis Nirenberg of New York University. Considered the Nobel of mathematics, the Abel Prize includes an award of six million kroner ($700,000).

Mr. Wiles had been intrigued by the problem since the age of ten, and, in 1986, he began working on the theorem in secret. From the moment he first encountered Fermat’s Last Theorem, he knew, he claimed, “that I would never let it go. I had to solve it.” 

He announced his proof in 1993, only to hear two months later from a colleague that his solution contained a mistake. After another year of work, collaborating with his former student Richard Taylor, who received his PhD in mathematics at Princeton in 1988, Mr. Wiles corrected his proof and published the groundbreaking results.

“Few results,” the Abel Committee stated in its March 15 announcement of the award, “have as rich a mathematical history and as dramatic a proof as Fermat’s Last Theorem.” The new ideas introduced by Mr. Wiles have been crucial to many developments in mathematics since 1994.

Mr. Wiles will receive the Abel Prize from H.R.H. Crown Prince Haakon at an award ceremony in Oslo on May 24.