I've just started reading Ribenboim's "13 lectures on FLT" and in it he makes sure to first explain the statement of the theorem and point out that, effectively, it has to be proven only for the exponents $4$ and $p$, where $p$ is an odd prime. This was clear to me, but after this he goes on to point out 2 further "cases" of the theorem:

The statement of Fermat's last theorem is often subdivided further into two cases:

The first case holds for the exponent $p$ when there do not exist integers $x,y,z$ such that $p\nmid xyz$ and $x^p+y^p=z^p$. The second case holds for the exponent $p$ when there do not exist integers $x,y,z$, all different from $0$, such that $p\mid xyz$, $gcd(x,y,z) = 1$ and $x^p+y^p=z^p$.

If I understood these statements correctly, the goal is to make the distinction for the case when $p$ divides none of the three terms (the first case) and the case when it divides only one (the second case). Why is it necessary to do this? What effect on the problem does the amount of terms divisible by the exponent have?

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    $\begingroup$ Fermat's Last Theorem has a very long and well documented history. Many of the early algebraic techniques differentiated between the so called First and Second cases of the Theorem (which is the distinction you are looking at). See Sophie Germain's Theorem for an example. The entire history is quite long. $\endgroup$
    – lulu
    Jan 9, 2020 at 14:24
  • $\begingroup$ The first case is simpler to attack, see for instance the above link or dms.umontreal.ca/~andrew/PDF/FLTIformany.pdf $\endgroup$
    – dan_fulea
    Jan 9, 2020 at 14:25
  • $\begingroup$ It is not "necessary to do this", but progress was made historically on these first and second cases. Note that if a prime divides two of the terms $x,y,z$, it must also divide the third of them. So the second case is a bit narrower than you described. $\endgroup$
    – hardmath
    Jan 9, 2020 at 14:26
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    $\begingroup$ @hardmath you're right, I hadn't noticed that if it divides 2 then it divides all 3 and then you can simply factor it out and return to the first case. So the two cases are "the exponent divides none of the terms" and "the exponent divides only one of the terms" $\endgroup$ Jan 9, 2020 at 14:28

1 Answer 1


"It is necessary to do this" only in the approach "à la Kummer". Recall that Kummer's work (starting from around 1845) amounts roughly to the theory of ideals in the ring $\mathbf Z[\zeta _p]$, where $\zeta _p$ is a primitive $p$-th root of unity. In your notations, Kummer showed that if $p$ is regular, i.e. $p$ does not divide the class number of $\mathbf Q(\zeta _p)$, then FLT holds true. Looking at the details of the proof (see e.g. Washington's book "Introduction to cyclotomic fields", chap.9), you'll see that it requires two distinct properties : 1) $p$ does not divide the class number of $\mathbf Q(\zeta _p)^+$ (the maximal totally real subfield of $\mathbf Q(\zeta _p)$) ; 2) under a certain congruential condition, a unit is a $p$-th power in $\mathbf Q(\zeta _p)^+$. The second property is a theorem (op. cit. thm.5.36), whose proof is immediate in the so called first case, but not in the second.

It is not necessary to do this in the "modular" approach, where FLT is just a corollary of the Shimura-Taniyama-Weil conjecture proved by Wiles around 1995: Every elliptic curve defined over $\mathbf Q$ is modular (in very vague terms, "comes from" a modular form). The distinction between Kummer's two cases becomes irrelevant. The elliptic curve coming into play is the Hellegouarch-Frei curve : starting from an hypothetical non trivial solution of Fermat's equation $a^p+b^p=c^p$, consider the elliptic curve $E$ defined by $y^2=x(x+\epsilon a^p)(x-\epsilon b^p),\epsilon=\pm 1$. Around 1969, Y. Hellegouarch showed that it has so many good properties that it could not possibly exist (he called it "Orlando's mare", from Ariosto's epic poem "Orlando Furioso"), but he could not go further because the theory of modular forms was not developped enough at that time. Much later, around 1985, G. Frey had the brilliant intuition that "Orlando's mare" could not be a modular curve, and this was proved by K. Ribet. The rest is history.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for the comprehensive and detailed answer! As I am not familiar with algebraic number theory and believe the mentioned text by Washington would go over my head, is there anything you could recommend that I read, if I'm interested in the subject? Some googling seems to suggest Edwards' "Fermat't Last Theorem: A Genetic Introduction to Algebraic Number Theory" might be a good suggestion, is there anything you might add to this? $\endgroup$ Jan 11, 2020 at 16:29
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    $\begingroup$ I think that Edwards is "too genetic". If you are looking for something which is "really mathematical" but not too much specialized, Ribenboim seems a good compromise. All the more so as his newest edition (if I remember well) seems to have been edited in order to incorporate the latest developments. $\endgroup$ Jan 11, 2020 at 17:45
  • $\begingroup$ By "Ribenboim", you mean his "Classical Theory of Algebraic Numbers", right (that's what comes up in the search)? Also, on the subject of Ribenboim, are you familiar with the book I mentioned in the post? What are the prerequisites for it? None are mentioned in the preface and I've just started reading the introduction. $\endgroup$ Jan 11, 2020 at 17:53
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    $\begingroup$ No, I mean his "13 Lectures on FLT" that you mentioned, revised and updated edition. A minimal knowledge of ANT is required, but you can find the complements in any book or course if needed. $\endgroup$ Jan 11, 2020 at 18:49
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    $\begingroup$ I remember (not precisely) that the first parts were left unchanged, but the author added new chapters to keep up with the newest developments. The book remains self-contained, i.e. the main definitions and results are recalled. This is sufficient since it doesn't give all the proofs. If you need classical results of ANT, as I said, you can consult any text book. Concerning the "modular part", I recommend the book by Hellegouarch, translated from the french, "The mathematics of Fermat-Wiles,", or something like that. $\endgroup$ Jan 11, 2020 at 21:16

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