WHO: James M. Vaughn Jr., heir to a fortune generated by the oil gushers of East Texas; English mathematician Sir Andrew Wiles; and seventeenth-century French amateur mathematician Pierre de Fermat.
WHAT: The untold story of the philanthropic endeavor that led to the solution to math’s hardest puzzle.
WHY IT’S SO GREAT: Back in 1637, or thereabouts, a lawyer and hobbyist mathematician named Pierre de Fermat wrote a few tricky math problems. Known as Fermat’s theorems, these puzzles became famous, helping to define the world’s understanding of mathematics. The process of solving them took a long time, however. Fermat’s “little theorem,” regarding prime numbers, did not see its first published proof for nearly a hundred years. His polygonal number theorem went unproven in full for another eight decades beyond that, with its final full proof published in 1813. And his most famous puzzle, Fermat’s last theorem, was a mathematical mystery that stretched across centuries.
The theorem is relatively simple: It states that no three nonzero integers can satisfy the equation an + bn = cn, where n is any integer greater than 2. The proof for it, however, bedeviled mathematicians. Fermat’s final theorem wasn’t just unsolved; it was considered unsolvable. In 1961, mathematician Eric Temple Bell published a book, The Last Problem, that declared the theorem would remain unsolved until the end of civilization. A 1989 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation set in the year 2364 references the theorem as still unsolved—a reference that became outdated just five years later, when English mathematician Andrew Wiles solved it, crafting the proof he would publish the following year.
All of that is history, and not particularly Texan. But this week, the New York Times revealed another piece of the puzzle: The paper published an interview with James M. Vaughn Jr., the 82-year-old East Texas philanthropist and oil heir whose foundation, the Vaughn Foundation Fund, spent decades financing research into Fermat’s final theorem.
The story of Vaughn’s involvement is fascinating. In his early twenties, shortly after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin, he discovered Bell’s book and developed an intense interest in solving the puzzle. He formed the Vaughn Foundation Fund in 1972 to finance basic mathematical research into finding a proof for the theorem, and he spent two decades renewing interest across the field of mathematics in Fermat’s riddle, which had fallen out of favor. Vaughn hosted conferences and helped to shape the entire field of study. A breakthrough that happened as a result of one such conference convinced Wiles that the proof existed, and he spent years in isolation, attempting to find the answer. Finally, after a false start in 1993, he published the proof—a 130-page document that the Times describes as “a maze of equations”—in 1995, proving Star Trek wrong.
Vaughn’s role went undiscussed in the decades that followed, and the philanthropist has rarely sought the spotlight for his influence. However, as the mathematicians who benefited from his investment have begun to die, Vaughn decided to take credit for his contribution to the field. And thus the untold story of how history and mathematics, in their winding way, traveled across the centuries from Castres, France, to Tyler, Texas, to Oxford University, proving the unprovable across 358 years, is finally known.