Stories of persistence

Stories of Persistence–The Murdering Surgeon and an Unlikely Proof

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Two Stories of Persistence

The Murdering Surgeon

We take the dictionary for granted. Either online, or the less popular printed form, you would be forgiven to think that words have always come from a dictionary. That Shakespeare would lean across his desk and flip through the pages to find that perfect word. Alas, no. At some point in time all words had to congregate into the first edition of a dictionary. Words were once like free range chickens, free to roam about and get up to whatever they liked.

For a long time, fragmented collections of words existed in book form, but not a definitive collection. Until Oxford University decided to exhaustively pull all the words together for the very first Oxford English Dictionary (O.E.D.), people couldn’t look up meanings of words, there was no dictionary to reference. Shakespeare would have to make up his own. The year was 1879, and it would take 70 years to complete.

One madman would play a pivotal role in its creation.

Dr. William C. Minor was an American Civil War veteran, imprisoned for 37 years in an insane asylum for murder.

His cell was a library where he worked everyday. His work, a kind of therapy that eliminated, to some degree, symptoms of schizophrenia.

In Simon Winchester’s book, The Professor and the Mad Man, you find out that while Minor was imprisoned he corresponded regularly with Professor James Murray who used crowdsourcing to help compile the list of words that would ultimately become the O.E.D.

Minor contributed around 10,000 words.

At first Murray had no inkling Minor was anything other than an educated man of means who had ample time to send regular cards of the origins of words and their definitions. When Murray find out his madman was insane and imprisoned for murder, he continued to receive his cards. Murray would say he found his work reliable and thorough.

Certainly the most productive, imprisoned insane person I know of. Chances are we regularly use many of his cataloged words.

An Unlikely Proof

The year is 1993. Professor Andrew Wiles is due to present a lecture. Word is spreading around Cambridge of something significant; a solution to a problem that has stumped mathematicians for over three centuries. A 1637 conjecture by the French Mathematician, Pierre De Fermat.

Simon Singh’s, Fermat’s Last Theorem weaves a tale that stretches from the 17th to the 20th century. A story that has its origins embedded with the Ancient Greeks.

What’s truly remarkable about this story are the sacrifices people made throughout the centuries for this conjecture to be proved. No less than a mathematician who at the age of twenty had already contributed greatly to his field.

However, 19th century France was no safe place to be young, brilliant and fooling around with an engaged woman.

A duel on the streets of Paris in 1832 left Evaristo Galois dead.

Galois missed. Now shot in the stomach, he died the following day in excruciating pain. Poor sod, he was challenged by an esteemed marksman. His brother had earlier commented suicide over the sullying of the family name by a Jesuit priest who had a grudge against their father. A fight broke out at the burial and the coffin unceremoniously dumped in the ground.

Before guns were drawn at dawn, Galois feared he wouldn’t prevail so stayed up all night to write down everything he had been working on. His main contribution revolved around quadratic (and quintic) equations and integral functions. This scribblings would ultimately help Wiles solve the conjecture. But this old problem wouldn’t so easily give up its secrets. A new branch of mathematics would have to be invented and a new conjecture proved.

Two Japanese mathematicians, Goro Shimura and Yutaka Taniyama worked on the abstract idea of symmetry. In the 1960’s the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture came to prominence. If correct, it would link two separate fields and prove Fermat’s theorem. It was a big idea. Unfortunately, Yutaka wouldn’t see it solved. For reasons unknown, he killed himself.

It would be several decades later when Wiles used Galois’ work and solved the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture to ultimately solve Ferma’s Last Theorem.

And Wiles would have to go back to the drawing board. Soon after his lecture a problem emerged with his proof. Wiles had thought on the problem for a long time, since he was eleven? It would take a further fourteen months to crack it. It needs to be said that at the time, around ten people in the world fully understood the maths.

Fermat’s Last Theorem has always been an easy problem to understand, not to solve.

A collection of words took 70 years, the proof of a simple idea, hundreds.

Professor Sir Andrew Wiles won the Abel Prize in March this year.


Also published on Medium.