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Before they die, aging mathematicians are racing to save the Enormous Theorem's proof, all 15,000 pages of it, which divides existence four ways
ASEEMINGLY ENDLESS VARIETY OF FOOD WAS SPRAWLED OVER SEVERAL TABLES at the home of Judith L. Baxter and her husband, mathematician Stephen D. Smith, in Oak Park, Ill., on a cool Friday evening in September 2011. Canapes, homemade meatballs, cheese plates and grilled shrimp on skewers crowded against pastries, pates, olives, salmon with dill sprigs and feta wrapped in eggplant. Dessert choices included -- but were not limited to -- a lemon mascarpone cake and an African pumpkin cake. The sun set, and champagne flowed, as the 60 guests, about half of them mathematicians, ate and drank and ate some more.
The colossal spread was fitting for a party celebrating a mammoth achievement. Four mathematicians at the dinner- Smith, Michael Aschbacher, Richard Lyons and Ronald Solomon -- had just published a book, more than 180 years in the making, that gave a broad overview of the biggest division problem in mathematics history.
Their treatise did not land on any best-seller lists, which was understandable, given its title: The Classification of Finite Simple Groups. But for algebraists, the 350-page tome was a milestone. It was the short version, the CliffsNotes, of this universal classification. The full proof reaches some 15,000 pages- some say it is closer to 10,000 -- that are scattered across hundreds of journal articles by more than 100 authors. The assertion that it supports is known, appropriately, as the Enormous Theorem. (The theorem itself is quite simple. It is the proof that gets gigantic.) The cornucopia at Smith's house seemed an appropriate way to honor this behemoth. The proof is the largest in the history of mathematics.
And now it is in peril. The 2011 work sketches only an outline of the proof. The unmatched heft of the actual documentation places it on the teetering edge of human unmanageability. "1 don't know that anyone has read everything," says Solomon, age 66, who studied the proof his entire career. (He retired from Ohio State University two years ago.) Solomon and the other three mathe…
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