So there’s a piece in Vice which quotes me as saying that I fear “all published maths is wrong”. Of course this is nonsense: indeed, as every mathematician knows, some published maths is wrong, but the vast majority of it is fine (indeed some of it has even been checked in Lean 🙂 ). The idea of how much of the literature is wrong/incomplete/whatever came up in the context of explaining various viewpoints which Patrick Massot, Michael Harris and myself had been exploring during our PhilMath Intersem last June, but for the record, “all published maths is wrong” is not something I fear, because I know it’s not true. There is another quote attributed to me: “I think there is a non-zero chance that some of our great castles are built on sand”, which I did say, and which I think is a far more accurate representation of my views (but rather less clickbaity). I guess that this viewpoint — that maybe some important stuff is not ok — is not believed by all mathematicians. Some seem to think that all the important stuff is fine, and I’m less sure.
But I also spoke about Fermat’s Last Theorem in the article, and made a claim which again not everyone in my community seems to believe — indeed Persiflage expressed an opposing view on Twitter. The claim I made is that no human knows a complete proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem. Speaking as someone who was doing a PhD in precisely the area used by Wiles and Taylor at the time it all blew up, I am lucky enough to have an overview of the argument — and certainly Persiflage does too. But does one human know all the proof? Last year I asked Wiles if he knew all the details of his own proof (30 minutes in), and he does not say “yes”. Indeed he says that he would not want to sit an exam on the proof of Langlands–Tunnell.
So what does it mean to “completely understand a proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem”? Vice quotes me as saying that nobody “completely understands” it, but it also claims that I suggest “(nobody) knows whether it’s true”, which again is a bit misrepresentative. There are people that I trust, who have checked the parts which I have not checked, so I think we can argue that I know (to the extent that a human can know anything) that FLT is true. But what about finding that one person who “completely understands” it? Let’s take Wiles’ interpretation — could we find someone who is guaranteed to pass an exam whose syllabus was all of the mathematics involved in the proof? I think we should make it an open book exam, so the human being examined can look at the literature — but they cannot consult other humans.
And here I’m going to stick to my guns. To completely understand a proof of FLT (let’s say, for now, the proof explained in the 1995 Darmon-Diamond-Taylor paper) you will need to be a master of the techniques used by Langlands in his proof of cyclic base change (and I know people who are), and a master of Mazur’s work on the Eisenstein ideal (and I know people who are). But what about the far less sexy technical stuff? To move from the complex analytic theory of modular forms to the algebraic theory you will need to know the delicate interplay between the analytic and algebraic theory of moduli spaces of elliptic curves (and I know people who know this — but I went through some of this stuff once and it’s far more delicate than I had imagined, and there are parts of it where the only useful reference seems to be Brian Conrad’s brain). This last example is perhaps a good example of a tedious technical issue which it’s very easy to forget about, because the results are intuitive and the proofs can be technical. There are many other subtleties which one would have to fully understand because they’re on the syllabus. Is there really one human being who would feel confident answering questions on all of this material? I am really not sure at all.
And I think the reason I am not sure is because Lean has taught me that checking the details can sometimes be hard. If someone had asked me two years ago if I knew the definition and basic properties of adic spaces, I would have said “sure — I even wrote a paper about them”. But when formalising them I realised that there were all sorts of subtleties which I had just “taken for granted” because they were tedious technical issues which “of course I could work through in theory”. Actually working through some of them, when formalising them, made me understand that some of these issues were far bigger and more complex than I had realised. In the perfectoid project there is still an issue regarding the topology on an adic space, which I had assumed would be all over within about a page or two of pdf, but whose actual proof goes on for much longer, and at one point even invokes Hochster’s thesis (which I’ve certainly not read), although Conrad assures me that it is not necessary. We’ve formalised the definition, but there are still some very basic properties of adic spaces which we have not formalised. Maths is hard. My belief is that, over time, mathematicians begin to forget this, and they start to conflate the idea of a result being “standard” with the idea of a result that they completely understand the proof of. Our notion of proof is so different to the formal notion that we skip huge steps knowing that the techniques will work, and after a while we may forget what is involved in these techniques (if indeed we ever knew). This observation is not really of mathematical relevance — if I need the Langlands–Tunnell theorem in my work (and I did, once, in my work on Artin) then I will invoke it and not lose any sleep over it. But on the other hand, do I really completely understand the proof of that Artin work — my own theorem? I wouldn’t say I did.