What’s behind the name of a mathematical theorem? For some theorems, like the Pythagorean theorem, we find a chain of different proofs that stretch back for centuries (in this case to Cicero, who named the proof for the man who may or may not have proven it five centuries earlier).
Then there’s Fermat’s last theorem, penciled in the margins of a book around 1637, with the proof itself left out for lack of space. In 1993 Andrew Wiles announced a proof of a slightly broader result that included Fermat, which ultimately required a collaboration with Richard Taylor to seal the deal in a set of 1995 publications.
In a recent essay in The New Yorker, SFI External Professor Dan Rockmore* explains the stories behind these theorems and the chains of people and reasoning behind mathematical proofs in general. But for Rockmore, one proof holds a special significance: the Rockmore theorem, named for Rockmore’s father. For Rockmore, the story of his father’s theorem is far more than a mathematical genealogy — it’s a story about the lived life behind the math. While most proofs are attended by long tails of mathematical thinking, Rockmore gives us access to the human side of how both he, and his father, built lives as mathematicians.
Read the essay, "My Father's Theorem," in the New Yorker (June 20, 2021)
*Rockmore is Director of the Neukom Institute for Computational Sciences at Dartmouth College, where he is also a Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science.