I recall reading in several sources the story about the letter "template" with which Edmund Landau used to answer individuals that sent him their "proofs" of Fermat's Last Theorem... According to what we read in Simon Singh's "Fermat's Last Theorem", the template read something like this (the poor translation into German is mine):

Herr/Frau ...

Danke für der Brief mit Seinen Beweis der Große Fermatscher Satz. Wir findet die Erste Fehler im Seite __, Linie ___. Deshalb der Beweis ist nicht richtig.


Doktor E. Landau.

Do you know if Landau actually sent one such letter once? In case the answer is a resounding YES, do you know if copies of the template have been preserved somewhere?

Thanks in advance for your knowledgeable replies...

  • $\begingroup$ I've read Simon Singhs book. It's written in English. I'm suprised he would have quoted a text in the book without translating it into English. Plus, Landau was Russian, so why are you translating this into German? It makes no sense...please enlighten me. $\endgroup$ – Mozibur Ullah Feb 3 at 16:19
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    $\begingroup$ @MoziburUllah: The copy of Singh's book that I have at hand is in Spanish. I translated it into German because I believe the "template" was originally written in German, if it existed at all. Methinks you are confusing Edmund Landau with Lev Landau... $\endgroup$ – José Hdz. Stgo. Feb 3 at 16:26
  • $\begingroup$ Btw, did you just downvote this question of mine? :( $\endgroup$ – José Hdz. Stgo. Feb 3 at 16:27
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    $\begingroup$ According to a German source (Rudolf Taschner, "Der Zahlen gigantische Schatten"), the text of the form letter supposedly started as follows: "Sehr geehrter Herr! Ihr Versuch, den großen Satz von Fermat zu beweisen, wurde von meinem Assistenten geprüft. Der erste Fehler befindet sich auf Seite ...". The article about the Wolfskehl Prize in the German Wikipedia confirms a flood of submissions that were examined by assistants at the Mathematical Institute in Göttingen. The rest of the story appears to be apocryphal. $\endgroup$ – njuffa Feb 4 at 3:47
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    $\begingroup$ I do not really understand the downvotes on this question. It asks for confirming existence of an alleged document from history of mathematics, which is uncritically assumed by many authors without any serious evidence. It seems perfectly legitimate to me. $\endgroup$ – Conifold Feb 4 at 8:52

The context of this anecdote is the Wolfskehl Prize for the first correct proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. At its creation, the prize was endowed with the enormous sum of 100,000 German marks in gold. The Königliche Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften at Göttingen (the Göttingen Royal Society of Science), was charged with determining the eventual recipient. For a comprehensive description see the following paper:

Klaus Barner, "Paul Wolfskehl and the Wolfskehl Prize." Notices of the AMS, Vol. 44, No. 10, Nov. 1997, pp. 1294-1303.

On June 27, 1908, the day exactly eighty-nine years prior to the presentation of the prize to Wiles, the conditions for the Wolfskehl Prize endowment were laid down by the Göttingen Royal Society of Science. These were published in several journals, for instance in the Jahresbericht der DMV 17 (1908), 111–113 (with commentary by Felix Klein); the Mathematische Annalen 66 (1909), 143–144; and the Acta Mathematica 31 (1908), at the end of the volume. The prize was, according to the testament, to be valid until September 13, 2007.

A high-quality scan of the notice about the prize from Mathematische Annalen can be found at the Göttingen Digitization Center.

Unsurprisingly, the prize elicited a huge number of submissions, which were examined by "Assistenten" (literally: assistants; I do not know whether this equates to postdocs, assistant lecturers, or assistant professors) at the Mathematical Institute at Göttingen, where Edmund Landau worked from 1909 to 1934. According to the article about the Wolfskehl Prize in the German Wikipedia, which cites Paulo Ribenboim's Fermat´s Last Theorem, there were 621 submissions of supposed proofs in the first year alone. Citing an employee of the institute in the mid-1970s, there were still 3 to 4 submissions per month at that time.

A fairly extensive online search for Edmund Landau, reminiscences of people who knew him personally during the 1930s, and mathematics at Göttingen between 1909 and 1938 (the year of Landau's death) did not provide any evidence of the anecdote. The story is therefore very likely apocryphal. The earliest mention in print that I could find is this article:

Nelson Stephens, "The prize puzzle in mathematics", New Scientist, Vol. 102, No. 1409, May 10, 1984, pp. 16-19.

Referring to the Georg August University of Göttingen, the author writes:

When Edmund Landau was head of the mathematics department there from 1909 to 1934, he prepared preprinted letters beginning something along the lines of "Dear , Thank you for your manuscript on the proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. The first mistake is on line , page , and invalidates the proof."

It might be interesting to trace the history of this anecdote back through the literature; I am marking this answer as Community wiki for that purpose.


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