Geek Trivia: The math behind the myth

Which mathematician mistakenly solved an "impossible" problem as a homework assignment, inspiring a modern urban myth?

In the long and storied history of uber-level mathematics, perhaps the holiest of Holy Grails was a proof for Fermat's Last Theorem, which holds that there are no positive integers x, y, and z such that xn + yn = zn where n is an integer greater than 2. Indeed, Fermat's proof proved so stalwartly elusive for so long that the theorem achieved that rarest of mathematical accolades: A niche role in pop culture.

For those of us who aren't uber-level math geniuses (or math uber-groupies), mathematician Pierre de Fermat famously wrote in 1637 that he had a "truly marvelous proof" that could demonstrate the above theorem, but no one could ever find a copy of the proof. And so began a more than 350-year quest to reproduce Fermat's lost deductions—one that wouldn't see completion until Andrew Wiles published a verified proof of the theorem in the mid-1990s.

Now, I could try to explain the proof, but apparently the first version of it took Wiles three separate lectures to explain to other professional mathematicians in 1993. It wasn't until 1995 that Wiles was ready to publish the final proof in the journal Annals of Mathematics. Suffice it say, comprehending (let alone recounting) Wiles' Fermat proof is beyond the powers of this mere Trivia Geek.

Pop culture? Now that's where Trivia Geeks reign. Fermat's Last Theorem earned perhaps the ultimate geek street cred when it garnered a mention in both Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The ST:TNG reference came in the 1989 episode "The Royale," wherein Captain Picard notes that Fermat's Last Theorem has gone unproven for 800 years—i.e., up to the "present-day" 24th century.

A few real-time years later, Wiles proved this assertion incorrect, and Star Trek writers subtly corrected the mistake in DS9's 1995 episode "Facets" by revealing that a previous incarnation of the character Dax had worked on a revised version of Wiles' proof. A far more forgettable reference came in the 2000 movie Bedazzled, wherein the Devil has ostensibly assigned Fermat's Last Theorem as homework.

But that may not have been the worst way to get Fermat solved, as there's a prevailing urban myth of a student late for class who, seeing an "impossible" problem on the blackboard, mistakes it for homework and subsequently solves the mathematically insoluble. Of course, like all good myths, this one has some basis in fact: A real-world mathematician actually did solve an "impossible" math problem he mistook for homework.


Which mathematician mistakenly solved an "impossible" problem as a homework assignment, thereby inspiring a modern urban legend?

The mathematician in question is the late George Bernard Dantzig, who passed away in May 2005 at the age of 90. While studying for his doctorate in mathematics at the University of California at Berkeley in 1939, Dantzig enrolled in an advanced statistics course, wherein his legend was born. In Dantzig's own words, here's how it went down:

"During my first year at Berkeley I arrived late one day to one of [Jerzy Neyman's (Dantzig's mentor)] classes. On the blackboard were two problems which I assumed had been assigned for homework. I copied them down. A few days later I apologized to Neyman for taking so long to do the homework—the problems seemed to be a little harder to do than usual. I asked him if he still wanted the work. He told me to throw it on his desk. I did so reluctantly because his desk was covered with such a heap of papers that I feared my homework would be lost there forever.

"About six weeks later, one Sunday morning about eight o'clock, [my wife] and I were awakened by someone banging on our front door. It was Neyman. He rushed in with papers in hand, all excited: 'I've just written an introduction to one of your papers. Read it so I can send it out right away for publication.' For a minute I had no idea what he was talking about. To make a long story short, the problems on the blackboard which I had solved thinking they were homework were in fact two famous unsolved problems in statistics. That was the first inkling I had that there was anything special about them" (courtesy of School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of St. Andrews, Scotland).

Dantzig recounted his story to a minister in Los Angeles, who was writing a book on the power of positive thinking. By Dantzig's description, the minister "garbled" and "exaggerated" many of the details, making the account somewhat more extraordinary.

The book nonetheless carried Dantzig's story into the public consciousness, either directly or by use in other ministers' sermons, and thus the legend—and some math-magical Geek Trivia—was born.

Check out the Trivia Geek's blog!

Keep in touch with Trivial Pursuits, the Trivia Geek's online journal of rants, opinions, crazy ideas, half-baked notions, bizarre concepts, wild schemes, and trivial observations unfit even for Geek Trivia.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the February 8 edition of Geek Trivia, "Planetary (m)alignment." TechRepublic member Gfisher busted me for my typically inaccurate touch with grammar.

"Another enjoyable Geek Trivia fix, but in your closing paragraph should not 'Therefore, it's imminently plausible' be eminently plausible?"

Yep, imminent means about to happen; eminent means prominent. While I could make a case for imminentand TechRepublic member Fungeek did, with some help from Google—this was a simple case of confusing homophones. Thanks for keeping me in the good graces of the Queen's English, and keep those quibbles coming.

Falling behind on your weekly Geek fix?

Check out the Geek Trivia Archive, and catch up on the most recent editions of Geek Trivia.

Test your command of useless knowledge by subscribing to TechRepublic's Geek Trivia newsletter. Automatically sign up today!

The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.