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
and Star Trek: Deep Space
. The ST:TNG reference came
in the 1989 episode “The
wherein Captain Picard notes that Fermat’s Last Theorem has
gone unproven for 800 years—i.e., up to the “present-day” 24th

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.

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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
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.

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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.