Don's Diary

April 26, 1996

Friday. An early morning trip from Blackheath to Norwich. At the university printers I take delivery of two boxes of my "bare hands" monograph on Fermat's last theorem, published by the Mathematics Applicable Group.

It has a nice glossy grey cover and "proves" the theorem - that it is impossible to find values for x, y and z that satisfy the equation xn + yn = zn (where x, y and z are natural numbers and n is greater than 2). Last year Andrew Wiles's proof was revised. It ran into hundreds of pages and attracted a lot of attention. My "bare hands" monograph uses no advanced mathematical abstractions, but only sixth-form level conceptions. I call in at Cambridge on the way south and give the first copy of the monograph to my former maths tutor, also an extra copy for the Isaac Newton Institute. Back in London by early evening. It is nice to be "retired"! There is an email - an invitation to lecture in Penang, but, sadly, it comes too late to alter the schedule.

Saturday. A busy morning: there are nine copies of the monograph to be posted before the post office closes, plus parcels of copies for the Copyright Libraries. The monograph on Fermat has been sent - to the ten best pure mathematicians I know. But it is not the first time they have seen it. They received my first version in January 1994: then it rested on four unproved, though elementary, assumptions. A year later, I sent them a version of the proof cast entirely as free-standing lemmas, (minor theorems) with the gaps filled. The present version is more polished and user-friendly. It has an introduction and offers comments on each stage of the argument. Since July I have offered a Pounds 100 reward for the first person to identify any major error in the reasoning.

Sunday. More letters written. They will be posted at Heathrow the next morning. Twelve copies of the monograph in my bag.

Monday-Friday. Three full days in Bangkok on the way to Sydney: we go to Jim Thompson's house, the Royal Barges, the Crocodile Farm. then with Charlie to the Bridge on the Kwai, the Grand Temple, etc. An eight-hour flight to Sydney. Lloyd meets us at Sydney Airport at 9pm.

Saturday-Sunday. We fly to Townsville to spend a day at the Barrier Reef.

Monday. My first lecture in the Teachers' Centre in Townsville. About local teachers have come in after school to hear a talk on the narrative way forward in maths.

Tuesday-Wednesday. Magnetic Island, a tropical paradise. See wild koala, quite close. A flight to Brisbane and Sydney, where Keith meets us.

Thursday. My second lecture, to the board of studies in Sydney: a good turnout. The writing team for the New South Wales mathematics curriculum is there. But the big interest is Fermat. Can we prove Fermat at last by an elementary route? We spend the evening eating a delicious Thai meal.

Friday-Monday. Fun in Sydney, including sight-seeing, a party, and attending Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream at the Opera House. Fly to Canberra: we are met by Jim. We see a long snake on his farm near Captain's Flat.

Tuesday. My big lecture on the philosophy of mathematics at the university. But at least one member of the audience in the back row (a number theorist) is furiously scanning the route to Fermat!

Wednesday. A talk to tutors on the new narrative approach to primary mathematics.

Thursday. Fly to Melbourne where we are met by Grant. Afterwards we see dozens of flying foxes in the Botanic Gardens.

Friday. I do a "colloquium" at the university. It is a mixture of philosophy and curriculum thinking. Again, much interest in the elementary approach to Fermat.

Saturday-Thursday Penguin Parade (Philip Island) with Barbara and Barry. A possum asleep in a tree in Melbourne. A wombat and much more at Healesville with Grant and Elmer. Talking to my publisher in Melbourne. Then home, 37 hours from door to door.

Friday. Prepare an exhibition (eight posters) for PER meeting on liberal education the following day at the University of North London: takes till 2am.

Saturday. A half-day conference which fizzes with intellectual cut and thrust, chiefly because our speaker energises the subject so well. Conclusion: we have seen a lot of wildlife, but the Fermat-mistake prize rabbit has still failed to appear.

Working with "bare hands" in maths, even on an elementary landscape, is pretty challenging: we are all accustomed in maths to sitting back and enjoying grand insights and high-powered generalisations. It may take some time before this tiring "bare hands" work is fully checked-out. I began the Fermat project in 1991 knowing no number theory. It was intended as a demonstration: that the new simpler conceptual approach need not harm one's performance in doing maths.

Chris Ormell Senior fellow, school of education, University of East Anglia.

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