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How Math’s Most Famous Proof Nearly Broke

Andrew Wiles gave a series of lectures cryptically titled “Modular Forms, Elliptic Curves, and Galois Representations” at a mathematics conference in Cambridge, England, in June 0f 1993. His argument was long and technical. Finally, 20 minutes into the third talk, he came to the end. Then, to punctuate the result, he added:

=> FLT

“Implies Fermat’s Last Theorem.” The most famous unverified conjecture in the history of mathematics. First proposed by the 17th-century French jurist and spare-time mathematician Pierre de Fermat, it had remained unproven for more than 350 years. Wiles, a professor at Princeton University, had worked on the problem, alone and in secret in the attic of his home, for seven years. Now he was unveiling his proof.

His announcement electrified his audience—and the world. The story appeared the next day on the front page of The New York Times. Gap, the clothing retailer, asked him to model a new line of jeans, though he demurred. People Weekly named him one of “The 25 Most Intriguing People of the Year,” along with Princess Diana, Michael Jackson, and Bill Clinton. Barbara Walters’ producers reached out to him for an interview, to which Wiles responded, “Who’s Barbara Walters?”

Out of the ruins of these failures rose deep theories that opened up vast new areas of mathematics.

But the celebration didn’t last. Once a proof is proposed, it must be checked and verified before it is accepted as valid. When Wiles submitted his 200-page proof to the prestigious journal Inventiones Mathematicae, its editor divvied up the manuscript among six reviewers. One of them was Nick Katz, a fellow Princeton mathematician.

For two months, Katz

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