Fermat's MacGuffin; September 1993; Scientific American Magazine; by John Horgan; 2 Page(s)
Alfred Hitchcock coined the word "MacGuffin" to describe some sought-after thing--a fabulous emerald, say, or a blueprint for an atomic bomb--that propels a plot forward. Mathematics, too, has its MacGuffins. Perhaps the greatest of all is the following proposition: the equation XN + YN = ZN has no solutions in positive integers for N greater than 2.
Mathematicians have been striving to prove this proposition, better known as Fermat's last theorem, for more than 350 years. What has made it so compelling? "Two things," answers Andrew J. Wiles of Princeton University, a 40- year-old mathematician lured into his profession by a youthful obsession with Fermat's theorem. "One, it is something a child can understand, and the other is that it has a history. The fact that so many people have tried and failed has turned it into a treasure hunt."