It's not just a book thing!
The basic ingredients for this book are an obscure yet initially simple piece of number theory and a 350 year long attempt to find irrefutable proof. No one seems sure if it is actually possible and no one seems to know exactly what it will mean if and when they do find the proof.
But in order to tell a story which is essentially about a series of people sitting down quietly and thinking very hard, Singh takes us via the Pythagorean brotherhood in Ancient Greece, Evariste Galois and Sophie Germain in Revolutionary France, and Alan Turing’s role in the Second World War, dropping in on all of the most rock and roll mathematicians in history.
This is a story of curiosity and obsession. As Singh recounts:
The mathmetician E.C. Titchmarsh one said: ‘It can be of no practical use to know that π is irrational, but if we know, it surely would be intolerable not to know.’
Singh handily explains Fermat’s theorem here – which saves me doing it. This is representative of the book as a whole – Singh’s explanation of the maths is clear and interesting throughout and he doesn’t make the reader actually do any of the working out.
If you’re a little rusty, you’ll probably lose the thread of the number theory at some point (I certainly did) but even if you’re not 100% sure of the maths, the human story is what gives this book its real impetus.