LIKE any math enthusiast, my interest got piqued by a Manila Times report that was published on May 5, 2005 about Andrew Wiles — the British Princeton University professor who first claimed in 1993 to have finally solved the world’s most famous mathematical conjecture, Fermat’s Last Theorem (FLT) — eventually conceding to errors in his proof pointed out by a Filipino mathematician, Dr. Edgar Escultura.
My initial reaction was mixed — one of elation as it is not often that we get to hear stories of Filipinos outwitting the intellectual giants of the West, and the other, of doubt, since in not a few cases have such tales of accomplishments turned out to be patent hoaxes, the most recent one being Faye Nicole San Juan’s "feat" at the Intercontinental Science Quiz Net in Australia last year which was given prominence in the local media, no less than the Philippine Daily Inquirer among them.
Reading the entire Times‘s report, however, eclipsed the early excitement and eventually gave way to skepticism. Following the discussion threads in some mailing lists and the posted comments in blogs that carried the story only intrigued me and heightened my suspicion. As a journalist, I was compelled to conduct my own inquiry into the matter.
The way it was written, the Times‘s report obviously relied only on a single source — Dr. Escultura. But that one-sidedness seemed alright to the editors of the Times who, in a reply to a letter-sender, even defended the decision to publish the story because, as they wrote: "We didn’t have any reason to doubt him."
Among us mortals, I know that only the Pope gets to enjoy infallibility (although I don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea). But even if Escultura’s integrity as a source is unassailable as far as the Times is concerned (the math professor having been the paper’s one-time columnist, math and science section editor, and who even taught math at the Manila Times School of Journalism), shouldn’t it be second-nature to journalists to always verify, corroborate and counter-check the facts they gather?
As it turned out, Escultura’s claims regarding Wiles’s acknowledgment of errors in his proof of FLT are merely based on a guestbook entry in his website by someone purporting to be Andrew Wiles. I say that because there is no way to verify the authenticity of the message since "Andrew Wiles" did not provide any contact information, not even his email address. Some have even recognized the tone of sarcasm in the supposed Wiles’s letter as to give it much credence:
Also I’d like to have the address of the guy who let you get a PhD 30 years ago. I’d like to discuss few things with him…
The logical thing to do next was to search for Professor Wiles in the website of the Department of Mathematics of Princeton University, from which I was able to obtain his official email address: email@example.com. I sent him an email on May 13 requesting for his comments on the claims made by Dr. Escultura in the Times‘s report. The following day, I got this reply from him denying authorship of the letter being claimed by Escultura:
Dear Mr Pabico,
The e-mail purporting to be from me is not only a fake but even as fakes go it is rather a feeble effort.
Even that email message appeared to be dubious in light of email-perpetrated hoaxes (remember the ones purporting to have been written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and much earlier, Kurt Vonnegut?). And as if to complicate matters further, two more guestbook entries under the name "Andrew Wiles" appeared in Escultura’s website on May 12. This time, the messages were saying everything was meant to be just a joke.
This time, too, Escultura admitted as much about his cluelessness with regard to the identity of the "Andrew Wiles" poster in a reply to another site visitor who left a comment in his guestbook:
Dear John Doe,
I don’t know who the real Andrew Wiles in later mails, the e-mail addresses are not indicated.
I sent another email to Prof. Wiles to seek confirmation if the two messages really originated from him, and if so, how they now fare with what he earlier sent to me claiming that the "first letter" Dr. Escultura got was fake. This was his reply which I received today:
Dear Mr Pabico,
I don’t even know what a site guestbook is. I certainly have not posted any messages on his website.
My sense is that Dr. Escultura and the Manila Times (and ABS-CBN Interactive which was the only other news site that carried the report) had been had here. And the writer of the report — Rony Diaz, the Times former publisher and now its CEO — and the Times editors could have spared readers this non-news, to put it mildly, had they only done their homework.
Besides the unverified claims and without going into the veracity of Dr. Escultura’s mathematical assertions (that’s for true-blue math wizards to validate, not mine), the report also contained factual inaccuracies that only serve to bolster the perception that this is a hoax. In a phone interview, Dr. Escultura himself pointed out that the surname of Bernard Zeigler, with whom he is currently working on a project, was misspelled. The report spelled it Ziegler which accounts for the lack of relevant information about him in Google search.
Zeigler, he also corrected, is an electrical and computer engineering professor with the University of Arizona, not the University of Texas at Houston as reported. Bloggers and members of mailing lists were quick to note that no such university exists in Houston save for three — University of Texas Health Science Center, University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, and University of Houston.
The report also claims that Dr. Escultura is a professor of mathematics at the University of the Philippines, which is also only partly correct. His stint with the U.P. Math Department lasted from 1986 to 1990. He retired from the university in early 1997, though he says he still teaches at UP Clark and the Kalayaan College in Abucay, Bataan.
The only positive thing in all this, a Philippine Science High School alumni list member says, is that it has rekindled interest in people, getting them to think about the foundations and nature of mathematics. As for journalists, who by common knowledge are mathematically challenged :-), I just hope this episode also reignites in us the strict adherence to journalism values of accuracy, authenticity, fairness and balance even as we grapple with the challenges of reporting in the digital age. Technology, after all, can be a journalist’s ally in getting the facts right and covering the right facts.