Fermat's Last Theorem/Paul Wolfskehl

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Paul Wolfskehl[edit]

The works of Kummer on the factorisation of complex numbers threw a general mistrust on the possibility of finding a proof of Fermat’s theorem in a reasonable time. The researches also halted because of the birth of new branches of mathematics that drew the studious away from the theory of numbers. In 1908 Paul Wolfskehl gave a new impulse to the researches. Wolfskehl was a German industrialist from Darmstadt who came from a very rich family dedicated to patronage of the arts. Paul had studied at mathematical university and, although he had greater success in business than in mathematics, his contribution was decisive in reawakening interest in the theorem. Wolfskehl at that period was in love with a woman who refused his every attention. Driven by despondency Wolfskehl had decided to commit suicide at the stroke of midnight, but being a meticulous and precise person he had planned everything and had provided an adequate arrangement of his affairs and a salutation of his closest friends by means of letters. Wolfskehl had finished the preparations before midnight and in order to pass the time began to thumb through some texts on mathematics. In particular thumbing through the work of Kummer he noted an unproved assumption. If that assumption revealed itself in reality false perhaps it would have reopened the possibility of proving Fermat’s theorem with the method of Lamé or of Cauchy. Wolfskehl worked all night and finally succeeded in proving that the assumption was true and therefore the proof was correct. This was bad news for the mathematician but Wolfskehl was so happy to have been able to correct the great Kummer that he regained faith in himself. He abandoned the proposal of suicide and instead wrote a second will according to which he would have left a good part of his patrimony to whoever was able to prove Fermat’s theorem. The will became operative in 1908 and the Royal Society of Science of Göttingen became the organisation proposed for the verification of proofs that aspired to the prize. The prize was announced by all the European mathematical publications and thousands of aspiring mathematicians choked the university of Göttingen with presumed proofs of Fermat’s theorem. Unfortunately the prize did not attract many serious mathematicians, given that these were well aware of the extreme difficulty of the problem and therefore it did not produce a real turn-about in the field of mathematics, but it had the merit of rendering the problem of Fermat’s last theorem famous to the public at large.