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Born in 1601, Pierre de Fermat lived a quiet life as a civil servant in Toulouse, France. In his spare time, however, Fermat dabbled in mathematics, and somehow managed to become one of the great mathematical theorists of his century.

Around 1637 he scribbled a marginal note in one of his books. In it, he stated that he had solved a celebrated number theory problem: "I have discovered a truly marvelous proof of this, which, however, the margin is not large enough to contain." If only the margin had been wider! For more than 300 years, mathematicians labored to crack the secret of Fermat's Last Theorem, without any success.

Finally, in 1995, a Princeton-based mathematician named Andrew Wiles solved the riddle. Amir Aczel's account of this brainteaser and its solution is an irresistible read. And for mathematical dolts—like myself, for instance—it includes a concise, profusely illustrated history of mathematical theory from the Bronze Age to our own fin-de-siecle.