Paul Wolfskehl

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Paul Friedrich Wolfskehl (30 June 1856 in Darmstadt - 13 September 1906 in Darmstadt), was an industrialist with an interest in mathematics. He bequeathed 100,000 marks (equivalent to 1,000,000 pounds in 1997 money) to the first person to prove Fermat's Last Theorem.

He was the younger of two sons of a rich Jewish banker, Joseph Carl Theodor Wolfskehl. His older brother, the jurist Wilhelm Otto Wolfskehl, took over the family bank after the death of his father. Paul became a doctor of medicine. At about this time, he began to suffer from multiple sclerosis, which eventually forced him to pursue another career. He chose mathematics.

There are a number of theories concerning the prize's origin. The most romantic is that he was spurned by a young lady and decided to commit suicide, but was distracted by what he thought was an error in a paper by Ernst Kummer, who had detected a flaw in Augustin Cauchy's attempted proof of Fermat's famous problem. This rekindled his will to live and, in gratitude, he established the prize. This story was traced by Philip Davis and William Chinn in their 1969 book 3.1416 and All That to renowned mathematician Alexander Ostrowski, who supposedly heard it from another, unidentified source. Another, more prosaic story claims that Wolfskehl wanted to leave as little as possible to his shrewish wife. Yet another story, told in "The man who loved only numbers" by Mark Hoffman, tells that Wolfskehl actually missed his supposed suicide time because he was in the library studying the Theorem. Upon realizing that, he concluded that the contemplation of mathematics was more rewarding than a beautiful woman so he decided not to kill himself. He bankrolled the Theorem because it "saved his life".

In any case, on June 27, 1997, the prize was finally won by Andrew Wiles. By then, due in part to the hyperinflation Germany suffered after the end of World War I, the award had dwindled to £30,000.

The play From Abstraction by Robert Thorogood is based on the life of Paul Wolfskehl. It was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 1 November 2006[1] and 29 August 2008.[2]

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References[edit]

  • Ball, W. W. R. and Coxeter, H. S. M. Mathematical Recreations and Essays, 13th ed. New York: Dover, pp. 69-73, 1987.
  • Barner, K. "Paul Wolfskehl and the Wolfskehl Prize." Not. Amer. Math. Soc. 44, 1294-1303, 1997.
  • Hoffman, P., The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdos and the Search for Mathematical Truth, New York: Hyperion, pp. 193-199, 1998.

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