Pierre de Fermat

Pierre de Fermat (pronounced Fer-mah') was born in southwestern France in 1601. His father was a wealthy leather merchant who made it possible for Pierre to receive a monastery education and to attend the University of Toulouse.

By the time he was 30, Pierre was a civil servant whose job was to act as a link between petitioners from Toulouse to the King of France and an enforcer of royal decrees from the King to the local people. Evidence suggests he was considerate and merciful in his duties.

Since he was also required to act as an appeal judge in important local cases, he did everything he could to be impartial. To avoid socializing with those who might one day appear before him in court, he became involved in mathematics and spent as much free time as he could in its study. He was so skilled in the subject that he could be called a professional amateur.

He was mostly isolated from other mathematicians, though he wrote regularly to two English mathematicians, Digby and Wallis. He also corresponded with French mathematician, Father Mersenne (pronounced Mer-seen') who was trying to increase discussion and the exchange of ideas among French mathematicians. One was Blaise Pascal who, with Fermat, established a new branch of math - probability theory.

Fermat himself was secretive and, since he rarely wrote complete proofs or explanations of how he got his answers, was mischievously frustrating for others to understand. He loved to announce in letters that he had just solved a problem in math but then refused to disclose its solution, leaving it for others to figure out.

Besides probability theory, Fermat also helped lay the foundations for calculus, an area of math that calculates the rate of change of one quantity in relation to another, for example velocity and acceleration.

Fermat's passion in math was in yet another branch - number theory, the relationship among numbers. While he was studying an ancient number puzzle book, he came up with a puzzle of his own that has been called Fermat's Enigma. Mathematicians worked for over three centuries to find its answer, but no one succeeded until 1994. Andrew Wiles, an American mathematician, created a proof and published it 330 years after Fermat's death in 1665.

Contributed by Charlene Evans


Singh, Simon. Fermat's Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World's Greatest Mathematical Problem. New York: Doubleday, 1997.

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