16 May 2018

 Fermat’s Last Theorem 

I’ve had a thought rolling around for a while about ‘difficult problems’ and how to solve them. We all have issues that tend to drop to the bottom of the pile.


When I am feeling like I have too much on my plate, I find that writing a ‘to-do’ list means that I am significantly more productive than if I don’t. There is also a decent sense of satisfaction when I cross items off my list. (Always, item 1 on my list is ‘Write List’ - that’s an early win!!). Many, many years ago, I was working as a labourer on a farm. My colleague and I had a white board with our daily tasks listed that we would tick off during tea breaks. At the end of each day, we would carry over unfinished jobs onto the next day’s list. After a week or so, we were discussing why a particular task was being carried over day after day. I was frustrated that we never seemed to get to this task. It was a 3-4 hour job and we never seemed to find that chunk of time in the day. My frustration stemmed from the lack of satisfaction at completing a to-do list. My colleague then offered some insight that went on to  fix my almost obsessional compulsion to complete a task list with some simple advice: Patrick said to me, “One Morning,” (He was always one for a lyrical story!), “One Morning, (he said) Monsieur Eiffel wrote on his to-do list “Build Tower” - now, that was carried over and over many times before he completed his to-do list - so don’t get so precious!” This is advice that I took very much to heart - to the extent that I have had a series of pictures of the Eiffel Tower at various stages of construction on my office wall ever since.


This next bit might get a little technical, but try not to fall asleep and gloss over the maths bits if you like!


In 1637 a famous French mathematician named Pierre de Fermat was reading a boring maths article and was doodling in the margin. In this doodling he posed a problem. It appears very straight forward -- any ‘O’ level maths student upon first looking at it should think, “I can solve that”. (The problem is that no three positive integers a, b and c satisfy the equation an + bn = cn for any integer value of n > 2). This, apparently simple problem, took 358 years to prove. It is in the Guiness Book of Records as ‘the most difficult mathematical problem’ - on the basis that it has the largest number of unsuccessful proofs. The reason that so many people submitted answers (which were discovered to be unsuccessful) is that various Governments and organisations offered very large cash prizes to the person who solved the problem.


In 1714 the British Government passed an Act of Parliament to establish a prize for the inventor who could come up with a method of accurately pinpointing Longitude whilst on board a ship. This was deemed important as British ships were sailing all over the planet at the time and really had very little idea of how close to shore they were at any given moment -- and as a result quite often shipwrecked. A watchmaker called John Harrison invented a timepiece that in combination with a bit of know-how would enable the user to exactly reference their Longitude to within a half a degree. (Incidentally it is a Harrison Timepiece that Rodney and Del-Boy found that finally made them ‘Millionaires’). Harrison won the prize of £20,000 - worth nearly three million quid in today’s money. He also saved countless lives. Many people spent many hours developing systems of calculating Longitude and submitted solutions to the Navy -- but none of them was accurate enough to meet the criteria and therefore didn’t win the prize. However, through these many failures, others found inspiration: the concept of trial and error.


Trial and error as a method of Research and Development is understandably costly. The amount that the British Government would have had to pay all the inventors frantically beavering away in their workshops would have been astronomical. Certainly many times as much as the relatively modest £20,000 they paid Harrison. Equally, there is no way that Fermat’s Last Theorem would have had so many attempts (and subsequently be solved) if the Government had to pay each of thousands of great mathematical minds their hourly rates!


If you’re still reading (ta very much for that!), I will finally bring this ramble on to fostering. On my notional ‘to-do list’ for the last twenty years has been ‘Improve Fostering’. There have been many stunning developments in the world of fostering over the last hundred years -- but I believe that most of them have been ‘papering over the cracks’. Certainly, at times, it has felt as though the system has been at breaking point. The various developments in legislation over the years have typically been born out of exceptional circumstances. Most recently Baby P and Victoria Climbie. The regulations therefore deal with recommendations contained within reports that were the result of enquiries that did not represent the day-to-day work (Munro and Laming). This year marks a departure from that methodology. The Narey report and the Education Select Committee report do not reflect highly unusual situations. They were created from the general enquiries into fostering conducted with people who are actually involved in the work. Therefore, I have high hopes that for the first time in a generation we have the opportunity to create an environment that is best suited for that vulnerable section of society that we deem necessary to take away from their families. I believe that within our industry we have got the appetite to develop and to accept wholesale changes in our approach. My further hope is that akin to Fermat’s Last Theorem and the Longitude problem -- the Government is willing to invest the resources required to buy the vast quantity of ‘Genius-Hours’ that will make decent headway in generally improving the system.




Image credit: pxhere



written by

Keith Gorman

Director & Registered Individual


Last modified on Wednesday, 16 May 2018 10:01

Serious success review - almost des... Pot Noodle, anyone?
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