In this short series of articles, I’m writing about mathematical questions we don’t know the answer to – which haven’t yet been proven or disproven. This is the second article in the series, and considers a less well-known variant on an extremely well-known problem.
Ask anyone to name a theorem, and they’ll probably come up with one of the really famous ones, like Pythagoras’ theorem. This super-handy hypotenuse fact states that for a triangle with sides A, B and C, where the angle between A and B is a right angle, we have $C^2 = A^2 + B^2$. This leads us on to a nice bit of stamp-collecting – there are infinitely many triples of integers, A, B and C, which fit this equation, called Pythagorean Triples.
One well-known generalisation of this is to change the value $2$ to larger values, and go looking for triples satisfying $C^n = A^n + B^n$. But don’t – Andrew Wiles spent a good chunk of his life on proving that you can’t, for any value of $n>2$, find any such triples. The statement was originally made by Pierre De Fermat, and while Fermat famously didn’t write down a proof, it was the last of his mathematical statements to be gifted one – hence the name ‘Fermat’s Last Theorem’ – and proving it took over 350 years.