Monday, January 03, 2005

Fermat could have used blogs

Ben Macintyre normally writes an interesting column on Saturdays in the Times - generally different from what's been in the news. His last couple have been no exception, and today I'm going to write about the column in which he bemoaned the loss of the art of writing in the margin. As he explained, books were designed with margins to allow thoughts to be written in the pages alongside them so as to guide reading in the future, or to provide the springboard for further thought. The most famous marginal scribble must be what became known as Fermat's Last Theorem - when reading a book which posed the theory that x^n + y^n = z^n had no solutions if n was larger than two, he wrote "I have found a brilliant solution for this, but do not have space to write it here".

Nothing was heard of this from Fermat again, sparking off a challenge to mathematicians for hundreds of years, eventually being solved in the 1980s by a Cambridge (pah!) mathematician. It also spawned some excellent jokes, my favourite being a graffito on the New York Subway: "x^n + y^n = z^n, n>2; no solutions. I have found a brilliant solution for this, but cannot write it now because my train is coming".

In any case, when I was reading Macintyre's lament about the absence of margins in newspapers, I realised that in fact modern technology has found a new type of margin. Except this time, it isn't as limited in the space it allows. I am referring, of course, to blogs. They may not have quite the same romantic appeal as a scribbled note in the side of a book, but they are a hell of a lot more useful. They allow ideas to be expanded fully; they open up the thoughts of one person to many more.

It is believed that, as the eventual proof for his Last Theorem was so complicated, Fermat probably made some mental error before he wrote his famous marginal comment. Yet think how useful an online community could have been had he posed his question in the modern era! The solution would not have had the media attention, of course; the marginal scribble could not have possessed its tantalising romance. But Fermat may have been able to solve his own problem far faster than the world imagined.