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Fermat’s Last Tango: Lively Musical For Nerds

The ghost of Fermat and other giants from the Aftermath Club help (frustrate?) a mathematician’s effort to prove Fermat’s famous Last Theorem

If you are a nerd, the musical Fermat’s Last Tango (2001) is hilarious.

Mathematician Pierre de Fermat proposed his last theorem around 1637. He wrote a note in the margin of a copy of Arithmetica, a book written by a 3rd-century Alexandrian mathematician, Diophantus. Fermat’s short scribble claimed that he could prove that a specific Diophantine equation had no solution. But whatever Fermat was thinking died with him in 1665. A proof of Fermat’s last theorem eluded mathematicians over 300 years until Princeton’s Andrew Wiles proved it in 1995.

Fermat’s Last Tango is a fantasy account of Wiles’s life while he was working on the proof. The play is a musical sprinkled with nerdy inside jokes. For example, part of Fermat’s historical marginal note in Arithmetica famously reads:

“I have discovered a truly marvelous proof of this, which this margin is too narrow to contain.”

Wiles (renamed Daniel Keane in the play for some reason) receives a visit from Fermat in his study. When Wiles questions how Fermat could appear from the past. Fermat responds:

“I have discovered a truly marvelous method of time travel, which this room is too small to contain.”

Other quips are pointed and not so nerdy. Fermat confesses that he went to Hell: “It was just like Jersey City.”

There are lots of songs. One tune, “Mathematics is a Young Man’s Game,” celebrates the fact that great advances in mathematics typically come from the young. Einstein proposed relativity and wrote his Nobel Prize-winning paper about the photoelectric effect in his mid-twenties. Kurt Gödel was the same age when he toppled an area of mathematics with his incompleteness theorem.

Historically, Wiles’s first proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem was flawed. The musical emphasizes the mistake with a visit from the past from mathematical giants Pythagoras, Euclid, Gauss, and Newton. They are members of an elite group of geniuses dubbed the “Aftermath.” Could Wiles fix the mistake in his proof and be inducted into the Aftermath club?

The group taunts Wiles with a rendition of “Your Proof Contains a Big Fat Hole.”

I learned about Fermat’s Last Tango from my interview with Gregory Chaitin, a great mathematician who, many will say, is a living member of the Aftermath club. Chaitin said of the play:

People were falling off their seats. It was wonderful. They’re not terribly sophisticated math jokes, but they’re all correct, and the songs are correct, and the history that they give… and the different styles of music, it’s great fun. They’re dancing also.

It’s wonderful. Go and see this musical comedy. It’s great fun, and all the math is right!

News, “Hard math can be entertaining — with the right musical score!” at Mind Matters News

Fermat’s Last Tango is no Les Misérables Broadway musical but it is a hoot — especially if you are a nerd. The encore after the final bow of the cast cracked me up. Nerds will love it.

Fermat’s Last Tango is one of the few films not available on Amazon. Incredibly, the music is not even listed on Spotify. But the version at YouTube above is free.

Note: Here is a review from the American Mathematical Society’s Notices, which provides photos from the original production.

Robert J. Marks II

Director, Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Besides serving as Director, Robert J. Marks Ph.D. hosts the Mind Matters podcast for the Bradley Center. He is Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Baylor University. Marks is a Fellow of both the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) and the Optical Society of America. He was Charter President of the IEEE Neural Networks Council and served as Editor-in-Chief of the IEEE Transactions on Neural Networks. He is coauthor of the books Neural Smithing: Supervised Learning in Feedforward Artificial Neural Networks (MIT Press) and Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics (World Scientific). For more information, see Dr. Marks’s expanded bio.

Fermat’s Last Tango: Lively Musical For Nerds