Writing and Reckoning: Sign Systems and Argument in Verbal and Mathematical Communication
March 24 1998
Andrew Wiles said that he first became interested in Fermat's last theorem when he was ten and reading a book about mathematics. What is intriguing about this story is that the problem that puzzled mathematicians for so long was simple enough in its language that a ten year old could understand it. Even granting that Andrew Wiles was far from the average ten year old (what ten year old do you know who reads a math book for fun?), it is impressive that a question so complex could be comprehended by one so young.
Mathematicians reaction to "What is
a modular function?" indicates not simply another
language which must be translated, but also the reflection
of another culture entirely, founded on proof after proof,
all stacked atop theories about the way that the world
works. Perhaps it does these mathematicians some good
to reanalyze this society, and to question all of its
validity. So I ask, "What is a modular function?"