One of the world’s greatest mathematicians, Sir Andrew Wiles, made a rare public appearance in the Science Museum this week to discuss his latest research, his belief in the value of struggle, and how to inspire the next generation [sciencemuseum.org.uk].
Terms such as ‘elegance’ and ‘beauty’ are bandied around by many mathematicians. What do they mean? They are hard to explain but Sir Andrew likened the mathematical equivalent of experiencing the rapture of beauty to walking down a path to explore a garden by the great landscape architect Capability Brown, when a breathtaking vista suddenly beckons. In other words, elegance in mathematics ‘is this surprise element of suddenly see everything clarified and beautiful.’
But you should ‘not stare at it non-stop’, he warned, else the majesty will fade, as is also the case with great paintings and music.
Today he is still walking through the great garden of mathematics, ‘the language of science,’ he said. Another way Sir Andrew described his lifelong passion to the rapt audience was as a ‘beautiful edifice…the most permanent thing there is.’
Industry and government realise that mathematicians are the lifeblood of a modern economy but are concerned by the lack of uptake of maths. Most young people ‘do have a real appetite for mathematics’, said Sir Andrew, but they are put off because, he believes, their teachers are not viscerally interested in the subject.
Sir Andrew Wiles famously proved Fermat's Last Theorem [wikipedia.org].