“Fermat’s Dilemma”

I’m on a family trip, and will be blogging little if at all this week; but I had a chance to look at a New York Times op-ed titled “Is Algebra Necessary?” and thought it was worth passing along to see what our readers thought of it.

My own quick reaction to the op-ed is negative — though I’m not certain of this, I suspect that algebraic problem-solving teaches useful mental habits that both open up possible future careers and also help train people’s general problem-solving abilities — but I don’t have time to say more about it. So instead of substance, I thought I’d note this sentence:

(How many college graduates remember what Fermat’s dilemma was all about?)

I remember both Fermat’s last theorem and his little theorem, but not Fermat’s dilemma — and neither does Google Books, which reports one hit for “Fermat’s dilemma,” referring to a problem in a book on math teaching in which a hypothetical math teacher named Mr. Fermat faces a dilemma.

Am I missing some thing that really is called “Fermat’s dilemma”? Or is it an erroneous reference to the seemingly very obscure Fermat’s Lemma (7 Google Books hits)? Or is it perhaps some deep joke on the author’s part that I’m missing?

UPDATE: Thread-winner from Orin Kerr: “Fermat’s Dilemma is whether to admit that you don’t know the proof for a theorem or just to pretend you know the proof but you don’t have space in the margin to explain it.”

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