There was a weird but interesting article in the May 7th Oregonian, "The Riddle in Room 114," by reporter Tom Hallman. It was a literary journalistic attempt to tell the story of Mark Provo, a obsessed 43-year old man who has been living hand-to-mouth in a motel for the last three years, trying to prove Fermat's Last Theorem. Provo seems to get by on small donations from various benefactors who want to support his work.
The story leads to Provo's web site, where he's posted his proof of Fermat's Last Theorem, and where until recently he had a document that he claims is important for "national security." (I was able to read it before he took it down.) Needless to say, Provo is a complete crank. Sincere, but still a crank. He has no more proved Fermat's Last Theorem than I have found the Holy Grail. His mathematics consist of simplistic statements that often follow little to no logic, and his results are all in his imagination.
What was even worse was the document on national security, which was pure numerology that had to do with the number of letters in words like "World Trade Center" and "tsumani" and other trivia. Provo would count these letters in various ways and associate them with dates and other types of numbers. He's now apparently waiting to announce his findings on live television once someone pays attention to him. Really.
It's all fairly ridiculous, except that he's gotten 15,000+ hits since the Oregonian article appeared and a few people are actually giving him money. As of today he says he's gotten 13 contributors, and notes that "money is desperately needed at this point." That annoys me, because I think in a way it's taking advantage of people's ignorance. Sure, Provo is upfront about the details of his work (at least, he was until he took down the recent "national security" document), and he's free to hang up his shingle and make his case. But his work has never been published in peer-reviewed literature, and as far as I can tell he's never even submitted it to peer-review. He refuses to accept the judgement of professional mathematicians (see below), and he's holding his work out as revolutionary when it's anything but.
The Oregonian article also annoyed me because there are so many real mathematicians in this world who deserve a Sunday, front page, above-the-fold, three-page article about their work, and the paper chose to profile a quack. People are free to do what they want with their money, but hopefully some of them will read this first.
UPDATE: To give Hallman and the Oregonian some credit, they weren't really that gullible about Provo's claim to prove Fermat's Last Theorem. They arranged for a professional mathematician to read his work, Neal Koblitz, a math professor at the University of Washington. Kobliltz, of course, said Provo did not have a proof, but he seemed too polite to say that it wasn't really mathematics. So the newspaper was kinda more-or-less appropriately skeptical. I'm still going to wait for them to profile a real mathematician.
In a May 23rd blog entry, Oregonian editor Jack Hart had more to say about their story, saying that "in hindsight, Provo was not the appropriate subject for such a story."